Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stop Naysaying! / You Try Creating Something!

Uh, yeah, about that more frequent posting rate-it will happen, I promise! See, I'm posting at least once a month!

Anyway, on to the matter of the day:

The Indycar series' off-season has produced a number of interesting topics for discussion. Chief among them is the Dallara DW12, the all-new race car set to equip the entire field in 2012. Contrary to rumors and pessimistic speculation, a sufficient number appear to have been ordered to ensure full grids all next season. The car is praised for improved road course manners compared to the 2003-2011 car. Internet articles, comments sections, forums, and letters columns show a deep dislike for the car's aesthetics and near-panic over its large-oval handling characteristics.

I'll tackle the less serious issue first. Over and over again, in place after place, I've read that the new car is "ugly," "hideous," and that it "doesn't look like an Indycar." These comments puzzle me. First, though I know it's subjective, I can't see what exactly is unattractive about the 2012 car. Nor can I see how it doesn't look like an Indycar. The appearance of an "Indycar" has been largely unchanged for 40 years now: Four exposed wheels, centrally-located open cockpit, narrow body, wings front and rear, and sidepods. The same goes for Formula 1 cars. Like it or not, the layman couldn't pick an "Indycar" out of a lineup of modern and historic American open-wheel and Formula 1 cars. The appearance of the 2012 Dallara changes none of that. The educated eye (i.e. the Indy car fan) will point out the unique nose outline, the add-on strakes/sharkfins/splitters, and the largely enclosed rear wheels. None of which make for a radical departure in appearance or an eyesore more offensive than the cobbled-together "Indycar" "ideal" already is. I'll go further and point out that I went on the record as firmly and proudly pro-Delta Wing. Not because that concept was particularly attractive or gorgeous, but it was new and different-both in appearance and concept. And that is what Indycar needs-embrace the future and BE the next big thing. I don't want Indycars or Indianapolis to be confused with "those F1s" ever again. A new, unique, and special brand needs to be built-and the 2012 Dallara with it's nearly covered rear wheels and unique (to American open-wheel cars) use of aerodynamic blades and surfaces-is a good start.

The more pressing issue is the DW12's teething problems. Multiple stories have been published discussing the car's wicked fast-oval handling. Apparently, it exhibits extreme oversteer on corner entry (too extreme for even loose-car aficianado Dan Wheldon, it is said), followed by understeer on corner exit. Excessive rear weight bias is pointed to as the culprit. Fixes are underway, but the Indycar fan community at large is up in arms, and certain that the future of their sport is in jeopardy, thanks to The Worst Race Car Ever to Turn a Wheel. Is anyone really surprised that the first prototypes of an all-new design specified to perform at over 200 mph are having problems? Or that a company whose business is building race cars hasn't had similar problems in the past? I'm pretty certain that nearly every new race car (like most products) didn't perform particularly well on its first shakedown runs. That's why the company employs test drivers, engineers, and technicians. If you didn't hear about other new race car teething problems, that's probably because of a couple of reasons. First, the internet facilitates frequent articles and updates from journalists and fosters communities that discuss and analyze what those journalists write about. Aiding this is Dallara, probably trying to establish a level of transparency as an advertising or public relations move. Something that would be unheard of in an era of chassis competition. So, we have a race car that is brand new from the ground up that does not perform as promised in its first few tests. Dallara, acting in an open, free manner likely inspired partly by its brand new, taxpayer-funded facility in Speedway, shares the new car's problem areas with the public, and is ripped apart for it. I have no doubt that the DW12 has problems. I also have no doubt that the engineers involved have a pretty good idea how to solve those problems and are working on them. I don't believe that is cause for concern, I believe that is the normal order of development. By the first race weekend of the year, I'd be willing to bet that most of the major problems will be ironed out.
In fact, latest word has it that the car is acceptable to race as-is on road courses, and that adding ballast is proving to be a workable stopgap solution. The initial deliveries (probably as you read this) are even on schedule!
There are a lot of questions about the 2012 season, but at this point I'd be willing to be that when we look back at this time next year, the DW12 will have not been a big problem.

Be back soon,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Looking Forward

More to come soon, I promise! Including some very exciting things for Flat Into One. (To be fair, that could be about anything, considering the activity level here of late...)
Anyway, the 2012 season is taking shape as team after team is announced (so much for a too-expensive car, huh?) and engine and chassis manufacturers test and test. There seem to be some high-speed teething problems, but I'd wager that the level of openness and scrutiny seen today are the only reasons we're aware of them. I just paged through the photos I took at Indy last year and am already getting excited for the 2012 race. Of course, I have things to say about Dan Wheldon and about safety, but those will come in due time.

I know, not much to chew on today, but I haven't forgotten you, loyal readers (crickets), and I promise real, actual exciting things in the coming weeks.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dan Wheldon, Briefly

After the conclusion of the centennial Indy 500 this May, unlikely winner Dan Wheldon took the traditional post-race lap in the pace car. As he came by our turn 3 seats, he thrust his fist in the air in celebration and what felt like a personal salute to us, his fans. It was easy to cheer for someone so obviously jubilant and excited about his accomplishment. The gesture made us even happier for him.

Sunday's sadness and anger will linger, but my thoughts are with Dan Wheldon's family and friends.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Notes from the 2011 Indycar Season

As I mentioned earlier this week, 2011 has been a very eventful season.

To recap some of the major stories,

1. Silly SeasonDriver and team changes were rife in the off-season:
Oriol Servia, after sitting out 2010 and most of 2011, found a seat at Newman-Haas with sponsor Telemundo
JR Hildebrand replaced '05 champ and 500 winner Dan Wheldon at Panther
Ryan Briscoe, rumored to be on the out, secured Izod as a sponsor and returned to Team Penske
James Jakes found a ride at Dale Coyne racing
Alex Lloyd and Champ Car dominator/F1 refugee Sebastian Bourdais split time in the second Coyne car
2010 500 Highlight reel star Mike Conway replaced Tony Kanaan at Andretti Autosport
Ryan Hunter-Reay secured sponsorship from strange pair Sun Drop and DHL and stayed at Andretti
After months of rumors, Graham Rahal finally got a quality ride at the Ganassi B-team
Ed Carpenter joined Sarah Fisher Racing for the oval races
Alex Tagliani stayed in the 77 car after selling his FAZZT team to Sam Schmidt
Simona de Silvestro secured sponsorship at HVM Racing
Tony Kanaan was out on the street after being fired by Andretti. He found a home with de Ferran/Dragon racing, only to be out again when that enterprise folded. Days before the start of the season he replaced serial crasher Mario Moraes at KV Racing Technology
Charlie Kimball took the second car at the Ganassi B-team alongside Graham Rahal
James Hinchcliffe secured sponsorship and a second Newman-Haas seat in time for the second round of the championship
I've left out a lot of others, including partial deals for Paul Tracy and Rafa Matos and the numerous one-offs for the 500.

2. Officiating
This deserves its own post, but suffice to say much of the season has been taken by discussion of the decisions made by race control, which range from puzzling to rage-inducing.

3. Double-File restarts
Copying this NASCAR idea was unpopular with drivers at the season's outset, with many of them (including, oddly, restart master Tony Kanaan) predicting a bloodbath at Indianapolis. Excepting some road and street courses that apparently can't be configured to properly execute them, these were pretty much a non-issue once drivers were accustomed.

4. Unexpected Winners
Mike Conway, Dan Wheldon, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Ed Carpenter have all scored wins this season, a refreshing change from the utter domination of the Penske/Ganassi teams the past few years. Servia, Rahal, and Kanaan have also knocked on the door. On the other side of the coin, two thirds of the Penske teams have zeroes in the win column.

5. The 2012 car and engines
After 8 seasons, the hump-backed, needle-nosed 2003-spec Dallara will finally be retired. After 15 years of exclusivity, V8s will disappear from American Open Wheel racing. While the car chosen wasn't the most interesting design, it was the most practical and most realistic. And it does reflect modern design trends. The smaller displacement turbocharged V6s to be produced by Honda, Chevrolet, and Lotus (multiple manufacturers-another change!) should be more reflective of production car trends (if production car companies are going to be contributing to the series, this is important) while providing reduced fuel consumption and increased performance. With information in short supply and controversy in excess, there are still many questions, but at least race fans will have something new and relevant to see and hear on grids in 2012.

6. Randy Bernard's $5 million Challenge
Conceived to add interest to the final race of the season, Indycar CEO Bernard put up a $5 million prize to any (approved) non-regular Indycar driver would could enter and win the Las Vegas race. While several individuals were interested and ready to go (NASCAR star Kasey Kahne, 1997-98 CART champ Alex Zanardi, and "extreme sports legend" Travis Pastana), luck and circumstance eliminated them. Kahne and Zanardi were unable to find rides they thought competitive, and Pastrana was injured several weeks ahead of the race. As a contingency, if Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon can win the race, he will split $5 million with a contest-winning fan. In my opinion, I'm not sure the failure of this program was such a bad thing. Would it have been a good idea to have inexperienced drivers on a busy track during a heated championship battle? Now, also, I suppose that Indycar could advertise something along the lines of, "Our drivers are so good, no one thought they could win against them, even for $5 million." This is pure speculation and I don't know if it's at all feasible, but perhaps if Indycar wishes to run a similar promotion next year, maybe they could help fund a couple of quality cars to ensure that interested drivers would have competitive seats to step into.7. Oval Track AttendanceIt seems that most fans prefer oval tracks to road and street courses and insist on having equal or greater numbers of them on the schedule. Those fans looked to be getting their wish this year, with races added at onetime open-wheel strongholds Milwaukee and Loudon. Unfortunately, those fans didn't buy tickets (even with steep discounts) and those events look to be off the schedule next year. While rain affected both races (though Milwaukee ran its full distance on time without interruption), the stands were nearly empty. Maybe those loud voices aren't the majority, or maybe they need to back up their statements by actually buying tickets.

8. Dario whines
I have a feeling that someone in PR or at Indycar asked Dario Franchitti to open up and be more personable or vocal this season. Early in the year, he opened a Twitter account, and began speaking his mind more frequently than in the past. I'm not sure this actually did him much good. The two incidents I'm thinking of came in June, when (after winning race 1 of the Texas doubleheader) he complained about his starting position in the second race. He also complained after winning at Milwaukee a week later. Even if the complaints were justified (and they were), they don't come off as sportsmanlike while you're winning. It also didn't help that Dario benefitted from some questionable calls and non-calls by race control (see "Officiating," above). I'm a big fan of Dario's, but some of his comments this year had me cringing.

9. Danica leaves
Is it a sign of the relative strength of the series, or of Danica's relative weakness in it, that her unsurprising announcement that she is leaving for the greener pastures of NASCAR next season seems to have made little impact?

10. The Centennial Indianapolis 500 Mile Race
I've saved the best for last. The 100th anniversary of the 500 was a milestone, a hugely hyped event. And the month of May, 2011, lived up to it. While rain limited practice time, qualifying produced a season's worth of drama all by itself: Fast underdogs, mysteriously slow veterans, teams simply not getting up to speed, an interesting front row including a feel-good polesitting driver and owner, and even some ride-buying on the morning after to rile up the purists. Controversy continued into the race itself with the double file restart questions and yet another rotten start. The race was fantastic, even if it was controlled (if not dominated) by the Ganassi teammates for its first three quarters. The usual powerhouses slipped and stumbled and some names we were happy to see ran up front. It seemed that most teams were thrown for a loop when no late-race cautions materialized. The lead cycled through several surprising drivers, until it appeared certain that American JR Hildebrand would wheel the National Guard machine into victory lane on Memorial Day weekend. That would have been a great story by itself, but a last-corner mistake put him in the wall (but still under power) as second-place runner Dan Wheldon swept by to claim the biggest upset victory in Indy history. It was only the second last-lap pass for the lead and the first time a winner had led only a single lap in 100 years. One couldn't help cheering for Wheldon, and Hildebrand's post-race conduct earned him as many fans as a win would have. The only thing better would have been if the driver of the National Guard ar in that other racing series hadn't also lost his race on the last corner on the same day...

(I just realized I didn't even mention the Hot Wheels truck jump, the memorabilia show, the sprint/midget car display, the winning cars at the museum and on the track, all the former drivers on track and hanging out, yeah, it was a good time...)

I'll have a race preview/prediction up before race time. Enjoy they hype, everyone!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Yes, I'm Still Alive...

I know, I know, it's been a while. The latter half of this summer, distractions have kept me from blogging, reading other blogs, or getting bogged down in discussions of the more contentious news developments in the Indycar series. Don't worry, however, as the weather is cooling and there will be plenty to talk about as we face what may be open-wheel racing's most important season in a long, long time.
If I haven't blogged or kept up with my fellow internet commenters, I have kept up with the series. In what may be a minor miracle, I've been able to watch every race in its entirety since Indy. It's certainly a letdown knowing that Sunday will mark the end of the season. And what a season it's been. Pegged by many as a lame duck, interim season that would only serve as a placeholder until the new cars arrive in 2012, I feel that 2011 has been one of the more fascinating seasons on record.
Once again, the two dominant drivers of the past half-decade go into the season finale with the championship up for grabs. Said dominators don't have any competition for the championship, but not for want of trying. Both have suffered from bad luck and made puzzling mistakes. A number of other drivers and teams have come on strong, and some of the usual suspects have faltered. Oriol Servia, Graham Rahal, and Tony Kanaan have produced far more than had been expected of them. Scott Dixon looks to be a lock for third place, but that doesn't reflect on his mediocre (for him) season. Two of the three Penske teams have yet to win this year, and at least one will end the season shut out. There is more to discuss on that front, and I will, but I want to focus on the championship battle that will overshadow the rest of the weekend.

Late in the season, Will Power overcame a 50 point deficit to take the lead from Dario Franchitti thanks to his own strong road course performances and poor results on Dario's part. With the oval monkey kicked off his back in Texas, Power went to Kentucky looking to maintain or build on that lead and make himself the favorite in Vegas. An ill-timed pit exit by Ana Beatriz changed that. Franchitti finished second and came away with a solid lead.
Conventional wisdom holds that Power dominates on road courses, while Franchitti excels on the ovals. Despite a win at Texas this year, Power still seems to struggle on the ovals and has a history of making mistakes under pressure (Homestead, 2010). Franchitti runs as well as anyone on the ovals, despite uncharacteristic mistakes there and elsewhere this year. The Versus broadcast crew thought that Power's momentum would be the deciding factor, but I'd submit that Beatriz' nose cone pierced that thought.

My pick: Dario Franchitti for his 4th and third consecutive championship. Not that Power wouldn't be a deserving champion, but he needs improved (consistent) performance on the ovals and better luck to do it.

For the race win: That's the subject of another blog post.

I don't plan to leave you out in the cold like that again. Look for another post or two from me this week, plus some post-season thoughts next week and beyond,

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mid-Ohio: Past, present, and future

The first order of business is to mention the dreadful parade that was Mid-Ohio and how Indycar should burn the place on the way out and never return. Oh, wait, that would be overreacting. Last weekend's race may not have been the most exciting of the season, but it wasn't all that bad. At least there were some lead changes, some bold moves, and a championship contender winding up where he didn't expect to. I'll admit that Mid-Ohio is a sentimental favorite of mine, and would end up being the closest thing I have to a "home track" if I hadn't moved several years back. In fact, that might explain the race's continuing popularity despite the utter lack of passing opportunities. About a decade ago, the open-wheel racing fan who lived in, say, the Detroit area, could attend the following races if he or she were willing to drive three hours or less:

Belle Isle
Michigan International Speedway

A little more commitment could take that same fan to:
Chicago (Cicero or Joliet)
Road America

In 2011, that same fan has fewer than half the choices. Perhaps the reasons for Mid-Ohio's good attendance is that it's one of few options left for the Michigan/Ohio race fan. With that area being a hotbed of racing interest and enthusiasm, it would be a shame to cut them off and leave a well-attended, popular track that happens to mean a lot to one of the series' main sponsors. Plus I just like it.

In related news, Dan Wheldon took the 2012 Dallara chassis out for its first race track shakedown. I, for one, am excited about the new car. I like the way it looks, including the fairings on the rear wheels and the shark fins (which don't appear to have made it to the running prototype stage).
The wheel fairings seem to be one point of contention with the new car. The argument seems to be that, without them, it is no longer an "open wheel" car. First, that's not true. The tops of the tires are exposed. Second, they are a safety item that has been a long time coming. One of the dangers of "open wheel" cars has always been the potential to lock wheels and send a car airborne-out of control amongst other cars, walls, fences, corner workers, and spectators. This is bad. Completely exposed wheels should go the way of armco barriers and leather helmets.
The other big complaint is the "air box" integrated with the roll bar. (Actually, in the 2012 car, it's more a turbo inlet duct, but that's kind of playing semantics.) Apparently the preference is for a CART-style clear roll bar. Why that is preferable, I haven't heard, other than people seem to think it's holding on to a Tony George-era Indy car design. It's not like Formula 1 cars have run air boxes/engine air inlets in that location for decades... To me, it seems like a logical use of space and a neat integration of the powertrain with the chassis. I like it, and I'll go on record as saying I'm no fan of the '97-and up Indy car chassis. If anyone has any insight, I'd love to hear it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sanity returns in Canada at AntiToronto

Today's Edmonton race saw a return to sanity and normalcy for the Indycar series. As far as normalcy, Will Power led the bulk of the way and won over another Penske car and Dario Franchitti. Regarding sanity, little of the crazy driving seen in Toronto was present. In the most jaw-dropping development, Indycar series officials handed down penalties when the "avoidable contact" rule was broken-which it was, several times.
Even when Tagliani pitted for repairs after knocking Graham Rahal out before the first lap was complete and wound up at the back of the field, he still had to serve a green-flag drive-through penalty, like he should have. Hopefully this is a trend that will continue.

Rahal and Paul Tracy were completely knocked out of the race by incidents, and Simona de Silvestro suffered a rare (for the technologically mature Dallara/Honda combination) mechanical failure. Graham made a good contribution to the broadcast by joining the TV crew after he was out. Every one else continued in some fashion. After a promising Toronto race, Scott Dixon's championship hopes took a hit when EJ Viso inexplicably (well, maybe not considering the perpetrator) rammed him, breaking his radiator and flooding the cockpit with hot coolant. Still, his team effected repairs and he returned to the hunt. Normally clean Oriol Servia was taken out by Mike Conway in one of those incidents that is maddening for its lack of a clear camera angle.

I thought one of the most interesting parts of the race was the good showings of a number of drivers that are supposed to be really good at this, but have been largely invisible all season. Justin Wilson came out with a top 5 and Sebastian Bourdais was 6th without the assistance of severe attrition (18 cars finished on the lead lap). The Andretti cars were notable for either their absence from the spotlight, or their propensity to run into others. Seventh, 8th, and 9th belonged to RHR, Conway, and Patrick, respectively. A fuel strategy gone awry relegated Briscoe to 10th, and JR Hildebrand showed a respectable 11th.

The closing laps promised a three-way battle for the lead as Helio sniffed at Power's rear wing and Dario laid back, waiting for an opportunity. Power (despite claiming afterwards that his tires had gone off) appeared better able to put power down and stay in front of Helio until the end, despite some aggressive braking moves. Alas, the last 20 laps gave no more changes at the top and that's how they finished.

I thought it was a decent race, though not spectacular. Again, the most newsworthy item was the enforcement of the rules by race control, which is a positive development. Even if it shouldn't be.

The series moves to a sentimental favorite track of mine in two weeks: Mid-Ohio. Again, I anticipate few lead changes, but hope for a solid, entertaining race. More to come this week...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who Will Go To Milwaukee?

A question was Tweeted this evening by the one and only Pressdog about the state of the Milwaukee Mile race track and what could be done to attract fans. I understand that the track is owned by the state, as part of the State Fair Park complex. The past couple of years have been tumultuous for the century-plus old facility: After successful events in 2009, NASCAR and Indycar stayed away in 2010 when sanctioning fees went unpaid. I still don't know exactly how or if anything was resolved, but the NASCAR Nationwide series has moved on to Elkhart Lake's Road America road course, the Camping World Truck series has moved on, and Indycar ran a great race last month. Trouble is, few showed up to see that great race.
Drivers and fans love the Milwaukee Mile. In contrast to the Charlotte Motor Speedway clones that dot the countryside, the Mile requires braking and real handling finesse to successfully negotiate. Its long, long history also give it a special pedigree.
The question was posed, if a private company were to clone the track, set it elsewhere in the greater Milwaukee area, and add parking, luxury boxes, and fan amenities, would attendance improve? After all, the existing goodness of Milwaukee (challenging track to drive) is retained, while modern race fans (and sponsors!) get everything they're accustomed to.

I believe the answer to that question is "No." After all, the 2009 races were well attended, and there were no suites then, either. So why did fans show up in 2009, but not in 2011?
Was it promotion and marketing? I doubt it. Looking back, I think I heard less about the race beforehand in 2009 than I did this year.
Was it the weather? Possibly, race day this year was cold and rainy until a couple of hours before race time. A less intrepid (or more distant) fan may not have risked the trip for a wet, raceless day.
Who attended in 2009? The guys I bought my ticket from were servicemen who got freebies. A co-worker said he used to go every year-when his buddy got freebies from Marlboro.
Was it the quality of racing? The 2009 race wasn't nearly as exciting as the 2011 race.
Maybe it was promotion during prior races. In '09, the race was held less than a week after a relatively dull Indy 500. In '11, it was three weeks after the most exciting and interesting 500 in recent history and one week after a buzz-heavy doubleheader at Texas.

Most things point to the '11 race as one that should have been better attended. Maybe "promotion and marketing" are to blame... Yes, some was done, but maybe the wrong kind. I recall the days of the "Detroit Grand Prix", whether or not it was held on Belle Isle. That was a big, big deal in the Detroit media market. The buzz cranked up more than a week ahead of time, and local TV and newspapers kept everyone abreast of all the news, developments, and what the stars were doing. Everyone could go to practice on Friday's "Free Prix Day" for no charge. There were races all weekend, with Saturday's action capped by a Trans-Am race. One might also see stars of tomorrow in smaller Indy-like cars, cars like one drove on the street in the NATCC or World Challenge races, or your favorite radio or TV personality in the Neon Challenge. I saw or heard nothing like this in the lead-up to either Milwaukee race.
Somehow I think the race and the surrounding activities (lots of on-track action, for instance-something done well in 2011) need to be assimilated into the annual summer activities here. We have the Summerfest Music festival, numerous ethnic festivals, the State Fair, the Brewers, several racing weekends at Road America, even June's annual Bead and Button show gets a fair amount of press. Local media has to get talking about the race and let the population know about it. I'm no marketer, but I'm guessing there are defined ways to do this sort of thing? Can they distribute videos to the media outlets? Run drivers and personalities through every major TV and radio station? Give away (or discount) tickets at every turn?

I hope something happens and the race at the Milwaukee Mile becomes an annual institution once again. Not only because it's my "home race," but because it's an interesting, historical track located in a hotbed of racing enthusiasm.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Armchair Course Marshall

This weekend the Indycar series continues its swing north of the border as it returns to a reworked Edmonton airport circuit. Nothing happened there last year, did it? Oh, wait, yes it did. And its fallout continues to affect the series, at least in the eyes of die-hard fans.

To refresh your memory, Helio Castroneves was leading the race late when, on a late restart, he took an unapproved line through turn 1. He was black flagged, but remained in the lead until the conclusion of the race when, despite finishing first, he was not shown the checkered flag and was instead scored last on the lead lap. The emotional Brazilian then went on a memorable rampage that culminated in begging Security Chief Charles for his life. (Citation needed)
Seriously, Helio received that elusive gift-a penalty for blocking. Often discussed but seldom seen, it's a rule that purports to improve the racing by facilitating passing.
As I watched the replay last year, I realized that Helio was, in technical terms, a sitting duck. Will Power had a monster run on him on the restart and would surely have overtaken his teammate. Helio countered by taking a 'bad' line through the corner-one that would have slowed him, but also prevented Power from making the inevitable pass. Castroneves didn't, in my opinion, have much of a choice.

The outcry was fierce, and nearly unanimously negative. I think of myself as a pretty informed race fan, and I'm still not sure I understand why a driver shouldn't be allowed to defend his position.

This event, along with events in races earlier this year (Long Beach, Milwaukee, and Toronto, to name three) have brought up a number of questions, in no particular order, about the officiating:
Why don't they consistently call penalties for "avoidable contact", blocking, and failure to properly restart?
What are the policies for said infractions?
Why aren't penalties consistently handed down?
Why does this climate exist in the first place?

Starting with the last item, I'm going to go way out on a limb here and speculate that this climate exists as a holdover from the Tony George era. While Tony is obviously knowledgeable and passionate, he never struck me as a particularly friendly or gregarious individual-a man of few words who doesn't speak unless he thinks it necessary. These are not necessarily bad qualities, but race fans have grown extremely frustrated with the (non-) calls made this year and last. If this is the culture within the organization (and I will be the first to say that I'm just thinking out loud here, and that I don't know), then it needs to change. We're seeing the beginnings of this, and Al Unser, jr's appearance during the Toronto broadcast was a big step in the right direction.

As for consistent penalties, the officiating team came out and said that Paul Tracy was penalized for a move similar to one made by Helio Castroneves (who was not penalized) because Helio's actions had already sent him to the rear of the field, and serving a drive-through would not have cost him anything. Now this just doesn't make sense. Do the crime, do the time. It doesn't matter whether or not he loses anything as a result, the scorecard needs to show that he was treated fairly and equally.

Yes, I do have some suggestions, some of which are so obvious I can't believe I have to spell them out:
1. Obtain and use the equipment necessary to police the race. Justin Wilson said on Trackside last week that race control had fewer camera angles available than even TV-and I thought the broadcasters were sorely lacking in options. I don't know all the technical details behind this, but something should be investigated.
2. Define blocking and enforce it consistently. Perhaps race control can put together a highlight reel of historical "blocks" and "non-blocks"-called or not-and use it to clarify the rule to drivers, teams, and fans.
3. Define the double-wide restart rule and enforce it consistently. Perhaps this means that the standard for enforcement changes race by race-it's apparently extremely difficult or impossible to line up the entire field in two rows at Toronto and Long Beach. Fine. Tell everyone ahead of time and outline the expectations. For example, "at Toronto, we expect the first two rows to be lined up side-by-side when the race goes green" or "at Milwaukee, all cars should be lined up in two rows when the race goes green". Any driver who does not obey race control will receive one warning. The second time, he or she is moved to the back of the field.
4. Enforce the rules consistently. If someone makes "avoidable contact," he or she must serve a drive-through penalty. If his or her car is too damaged to continue or the race ends before the penalty can be served, then that driver will start last in the next race.
5. Explain penalties and potentially controversially non-calls. Put the information in a "Steward's report" on the Indycar website Sunday night or Monday morning.
6. There shall be no favortism due to driver popularity, points position, team owner, etc.

I think that's all I have in me for brain dumps right now.
Oh yeah, the race. Um, Power is hungry and Dixon is on the cusp of a great second half of the season. So watch them. Rahal's been nigh unstoppable as of late, and Ryan Hunter-Reay looks back in his element. Finally, Tony Kanaan is a perpetual threat and hungry to win one.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Going (Back) to California (Speedway)

It was announced last week that Indycar will return to the oval at California’s Auto Club Speedway (the Track Formerly Known As Fontana, or California Speedway). This is good news for several reasons. It’s another oval race, something most fans seem interested in keeping for at least half the schedule. It’s a track that, despite its relative youth, has some open-wheel history: Both the world closed-course speed record and the fastest 500-mile race in history came here. It’s also a track owned by ISC, indicating that at least some part of that company is interested in investing in Indycar’s product.

I’d like to see it run as a 500-miler, but I’m not sure that will happen since it was also announced that it would be a night race. I think the area’s climate would make the race a good fit either early or late in the season-but the night race part of that might mean that Indycar has other ideas. Adding Auto Club to the schedule is also a good move since it only hosts a single NASCAR Cup race. This means that there is less competition for ticket sales than somewhere like, say, Phoenix that hosts two NASCAR weekends per year.

This announcement raises other questions. Open-wheel racing at California under IRL sanction had trouble drawing enough fans to fill up a small track like Milwaukee. One hopes Indycar has learned a lesson and will hire a promoter willing and able to sell enough tickets to make the track at least look full. ISC had been so lax in promoting Indycar events at their tracks that they disappeared from the schedule in 2010. The return of an ISC track would seem to indicate that they are, in fact, interested in Indycar and would presumably be interested in investing in advertising and promotion.

After next season (and the 2012 Dallaras have ample test and race miles to sort out teething problems), I’d like to see a 500 mile race run in early February-before the Daytona 500. Whether or not this would be allowed to happen at an ISC track remains to be seen (especially with a NASCAR Cup race run a month or so later), but I’d pitch it as a chance to feed hungry race fans early in the year and to steal some attention from NASCAR.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wings get Eaten in Toronto

Well, that was, um, exciting. Interesting. Hope you all have your spoons ready, because the pot is getting stirred...

It sounds like this race has already created a lot of anger-between drivers, between teams, between fans and race control, and I don't think Versus did anyone any favors. Well, let's get started.

Right away, Briscoe (on the inside) makes contact with TK's right rear, and takes him out. The booth guys seemed to dismiss it as "a bit of oversteer", which, based on my experience (though I'm not a professional race car driver), seems pretty reasonable. His car slipped. TK happened to be in the way. Didn't stop him from being pissed, though. And I don't blame him for that, though I would think he'd change his mind when seeing the replay. (TK has been more than fair to other drivers when he's had trouble due to their mistakes this year).
The pivotal moment of the race (and, by my count, at least the third pivotal moment in the championship battle) came shortly after the second round of pit stops. Like many incidents today, analysis of this one was seriously hampered by the lack of any alternate camera angles. What could be gleaned, though, was that Power led Dario into the corner, Dario made a pass attempt, Power was hit and spun. By the angle that was shown, it looked to me like Power had left room for Dario on the inside, then took an odd line through the corner that had him close back up and make contact, so that Dario's left front hit Power. I got that feeling again, knowing that the anti-Franchitti crowd would have a field day with this. I'm pretty sure, however, that Power was more at fault (despite Dario's post-race acceptance of "50% of the blame"). His line just looked strange. A post-race interview with the Target driver confirmed this. What will end up worst of all for Franchitti's image (tarnished by whining this year and apparently being able to capitalize on lucky situations), Versus reported on TV that he would be served with a drive-through penalty. He never appeared prepared to serve it and Chip Ganassi professed ignorance of any penalty. Eventually the broadcast crew reported that the penalty had been "rescinded." Apparently, race control never issued a penalty. I don't know why Versus would have reported that they had, or what the punishment would be.
Power's day would end for good several laps later when he and Alex Tagliani would hit. It was after this car-parking incident that Power would complain about Dario's "dirty driving" and wonder why he never got penalized. Will would go on to call Tagliani a "wanker" and blame the crash on him. I didn't see any interviews with Tags, but I did see that he replied via Twitter, saying (among other things) "Problem with Will is that he drives like nobody exist around him". I think I've seen this. Power has no problem leading and winning-so long as he's out front and not near traffic. Put him around other cars, and he seems to lose his edge. His numerous poles may have allowed him to break out and put him into position to exploit his strengths and translate those into wins. If anyone has more/different insight, I'd love to hear it.
The rest of the race was, well, carnage. A strong Rahal got punted to the rear of the field, and the strongest car not sponsored by Target was newlywed and hard-luck champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. Great for him. An invisible (save for taking out a bunch of cars late) Marco Andretti and Vitor Meira rounded out the top 5. Other top 10 drivers included:
Sebastian Bourdais-right after I wondered if he'd been sorry he came back this year for a bunch of DNFs and a DNS.
Ryan Briscoe-The most trouble-free of the Penske cars. At least the only one who didn't need a new wing and alignment, or worse, on pit road.
JR Hildebrand-What? He was in this race?
EJ Viso-Somehow, this is the KV car that makes it to the end?
Simona de Silvestro-Her Yo-yo season seems headed back towards the top...
Two of my other favorites, Servia and Rahal, finished on the lead lap in 12th and 13th.

I guess I was a little disappointed that one of the usual suspects won such a strange race, but I really can't fault him. I really think that none of the above incidents were intentional (Race Control seemed to agree, but they don't always appear to be very consistent. Props though to Al Unser, Jr, who went on Versus immediately following the race and explained why penalties were not issued in each situation.) I'm not looking forward to wading into the blogosphere's fray tomorrow, but I guess that's the price of an interesting race. Talk to you all soon (and don't be afraid to leave a comment).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Toronto Mini-Preview

It feels like forever since I’ve posted any updates. The holiday/Indycar-free weekend didn’t help, and the NASCAR race I watched the conclusion of did its best to crush my soul. But things are looking up this weekend…

After four (or five, depending on how one counts) consecutive oval races, the Indycar series returns to the road and street courses. Sunday will see the teams and drivers in the Land of Labatt’s, at Toronto’s Exhibition Place.

While those were all great races, I’m happy for the series to start making right-hand turns again. It’s a reminder of the versatility of the series’ drivers and cars.

Will Power once again threatens to dominate, provided he’s recovered from the concussion he suffered at Iowa. For that matter, the whole of the Penske/Ganassi contingent will, as usual, be tough. Dixon, Briscoe, and Castroneves (a contender until undone by punctured tires at the last two races) are particularly hungry. Other notables include part-timers Paul Tracy and Sebastian Bourdais, guys-on-a-roll Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia, plus Justin Wilson and Mike Conway will hopefully start making the noise they deserve to, being back in their element.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On Luck

(That’s right-two posts in one day! Consider yourselves lucky.)

Much has been discussed recently about Dario Franchitti’s success, and how much of it is attributable to luck.

Dario has been “lucky”:
He was leading Indianapolis in 2007 when the red flag flew for rain, allowing him to win.
At the 2009 Motegi race, championship rival Ryan Briscoe hit a traffic cone on pit road, incurring a penalty and allowing Dario to score more championship points.
The season finale at Homestead in 2009 ran caution-free, allowing him to stretch his fuel mileage while his competitors had to make an extra pit stop-Dario used the advantage to win the race and the championship.
At Indy in 2010, every other car from Penske and Ganassi either had pit road trouble or crashed, and a very late caution allowed him to run the final lap at much-reduced speed, ensuring that he had sufficient fuel to finish (and win).
At Chicagoland in 2010 Will Power’s crew failed to completely fill his car with fuel, necessitating an additional pit stop. Franchitti won the race while Power finished well-down in the running order.
At the 2010 season finale, Power was eliminated from competition in a single-car wreck. Dario took the championship with an easy top-ten finish.
At Milwaukee in 2011, the only two cars that appeared capable of running with Franchitti were Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. Kanaan spun on his own and hit the wall; Castroneves had to pit to replace a deflating tire. Franchitti won without serious opposition.
At the 2011 Iowa race, Will Power damaged his car on pit road, then crashed out. Dario finished fifth.

“Luck” alone isn’t enough, however, to win races and championships. One has to be in position to exploit the misfortunes suffered by other competitors-running fast enough and clean enough to be leading (or ahead of the competiton) when those circumstances arise. It wasn’t enough for it to rain at Indy in 2007, Dario had to be in the lead when the rain came in order to win the race. It wasn’t enough for Power to lose time in the pits at Chicago, Franchitti had to win the race out of the pits, then protect his lead for the rest of the race.

What is said about “luck” (“you make your own luck,” “luck is where opportunity and preparation meet,” and so on), is true. In racing, luck may help you get the lead or hurt your competitors. You have to be ready to act, though, when that luck comes. Being “good” or “fast” can help produce luck, too. The first-place starter (or restarter) is much less likely to be caught up in an accident that isn’t of his own doing-there are simply fewer cars around him to cause problems. The holder of the pit stall nearest pit exit (earned by qualifying, points, or results) has a distinct advantage over other competitors-he is guaranteed a straight shot out of his pit box and is much less likely to be exposed to errant cars, tires, or other pit hazards.

To begrudge Dario for winning races thanks to luck is to minimize the speed and strategy he and his crew employed when that luck came.

This doesn’t only apply to Dario Franchitti, however. It’s applicable across the board, and in other forms of motorsport. In the 1990s I was a Mark Martin masochis-er, fan. Time after time after time I saw Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham get “lucky” and wrestle victory from certain defeat. Even when things went well for Mark Martin, they went better for Jeff Gordon. At one point, a flustered Jack Roush went as far as publicly accusing the Hendrick team of cheating. Ray Evernham was particularly fond of citing those above platitudes about luck.

Iowa in Review

Almost an idyllic Wisconsin summer weekend: grass cutting and gardening and car-washing and sprinklers and a Saturday night race on TV. Well, ok, I guess any real Wisconsin idyll would have had more beer and some brats. And cheese curds. Delivered by Harley-Davidson. But I’ll take what I can get. In the summertime, I prefer the night races, mainly so my precious upper-midwest summer Sundays aren’t spent in front of the TV. Still, it becomes a carefully orchestrated ballet of dinner preparation/clean-up/child bedtime prep/green flag. The eldest got to stay up slightly late and see her Target Guys start the race (“Hey! Why is Dario Franchitti driving a blue Target car?”).
Early on, it looks like more of 2011’s theme: Mssr Franchitti jumps out to the lead and remains there, untouchable.
Race notes: Helio looks very strong-oops, another puncture. More bad luck, but I’m sure some are calling it karma for his use of his race car earlier this season.
And… Will Power has a problem in the pits. Again. Somehow, Charlie Kimball is in the middle of problems yet again, not that this was his fault. The Versus camera angle used to show the pit stops made it look like CK came from nowhere across Power’s bow, but other shots showed that he really was close enough that the Penske crew should have held Power. After he hit the wall, I wasn’t surprised that Power was diagnosed with a “mild” concussion. He was distinctly out of it during his post-checkup interview with Kevin Lee (I think I recall him saying then, too, that he did not have a concussion, and that was released later. Wonder if they re-evaluated him after his “I have a headache” comment. Didn’t they miss Simona’s concussion last weekend, too?).
Great race at the end, but it’s funny to hear TK complain about others blocking and chopping him… At least he was gracious in victory lane. That’s one thing that, I think, really endears Tony to the fans. Even if he gets the raw end of a deal (see also, Pippa Mann blocking his pit stall at Indy), he can see all the circumstances around it, brush it off, and move on.
I was happy to see Dario wearing a smile in his post-race interview.
I’m happy (and I bet Will Power and Simona De Silvestro are, too) that the series gets a week off, and that the next race on the schedule is the Toronto street circuit.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Iowa Preview

I'm excited for the Iowa race this weekend, and am actually feeling a bit of the "wish I was there" sting. Not that it's feasible, but at least one friend is there, and it's not soooo far away from home... There's plenty going on around here too, including at my local track. But, it will be really nice to have a weekend at home, with the family, with nice weather so I can actually get some stuff done. Except, of course, for those couple of hours Saturday evening.

Anyway, on to the preview. Let me check qualifying results..... Um, wait, let me do that again. Yes, it appears that Takuma Sato has won the pole and will start first. That was, uh, unexpected. But was it, really?
Formula 1 veteran Sato was (according to race results) the most wreck-prone of the Wall Magnet Racing Tea-er, 2010 season KV Racing Team, crashing in 9 of 17 races. That's saying something when one's teammates are Mario Moraes and EJ Viso. This year has seen a marked improvement: In 8 races, he has 4 top ten finishes and the word "crash" appears only once in the statistics. Two of those finishes were at this season's odd races: the attrition-filled events at St. Petersburg and Sao Paulo. The other two have come in the recent oval-track swing; in the first Twin Race at Texas and last week at Milwaukee. The Milwaukee result is most interesting; it's a drivers track that (from the stands) didn't look particularly easy to set up for. Throw in a pit road fiasco that included a drive-through penalty, loose wheels, tumbling crewmen, stops in the wrong stall, and general cartoonishness. And he finished 8th. One spot behind Scott Dixon and ahead of Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, Ed Carpenter, and teammates Tony Kanaan and EJ Viso. In short, he's on a roll. I'll be pulling for him.

At least things go back to normal with the outside pole-what? Oh. Looks like Fan Polarizer Danica Patrick has put her Andretti Autosport car out there. So far it looks like it will be a "hot" week for AA.

Lining up in third is last year's winner Tony Kanaan. Well, that's to be expected.

Fourth is... JR Hildebrand. Oval powerhouse Panther Racing's rookie finally has a decent qualifying result. His best finish of the year (other than the heartbreaking runner-up at Indy) is a 10th at Brazil-not quite what had been expected out of JR this year. Hopefully this will spark the momentum he needs to have a strong remainder of the season.

The world comes back into focus with row 3's Will Power and Dario Franchitti.

As far as other guys I like to watch, Ganassi B Team's Graham Rahal starts 20th and Oriol Servia starts 11th-four spots behind his rookie teammate.

Alex Lloyd starts 22nd, but tweeted that he was down on power.

I'm looking forward to this race (um, ok, I guess I look forward to all the races, so maybe I should retire this old chestnut). For a winner, I'll pull a name out of a hat-oh, it appears that desperate, hungry, angry Helio Castroneves's name has jumped right into my hand. No word on whether he blocked on the way there.

Enjoy the race, all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

F1 Returns to America... Or Not

Back when the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis was announced in the late '90s, I thought it was about the coolest thing in the world.

Not only was Formula 1 (this predates Schumacher's absolute domination) coming back to America, it was coming to the Midwest, and to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway-a move that, in my mind, helped cement the facility as a international benchmark. I would get to see the mythical drivers, the standing start, and hear the 16,000 rpm engines. Never mind the financial wisdom of the investments required and the hit to management's coffers-as a fan this was about as cool as it got.

The first race, in 2000, didn't disappoint. My attendance was facilitated by a complex logistical operation involving a business trip to Arizona, a car left at the Indy airport, two rented RVs, and some clearance-sale beer. Race weekend had a buzz that this was an exciting international event. Alas, it didn't last. I was able to attend the first three races, but other issues intervened and kept me from going. Attendance flagged in general and was undoubtedly hurt by the aforementioned absolute dominance of the Schumacher Ferrari and a 2005 fiasco of a race that saw only six cars run. By 2008, there was no more American Grand Prix stop, the event replaced on the road course by a Moto GP race.

No one could have been more surprised (or skeptical) than me when, in 2010, a 2012 F1 race was announced in Austin at (those oh-so-reliable words) a facility yet to be built. I hated to be such a naysayer (I was super bullish on the USGP at Indy, after all), but there are/were way too many questions here:

1. The track. Not built yet? Yeah, that's likely to go off. How many race tracks have been announced but never built? It's not a simple undertaking, to build a spectator road course from scratch, then expect people to come out.

2. The market. Austin may be "America's Hippest City", but do hipsters watch Formula 1 racing? Are there a lot of race fans in the area? Are there a lot of road race fans in the area? How friendly is the community to this idea? I would guess that there is enough entertainment and lodging in the area thanks to the college and the festivals, so it has that going for it.

3. The promoter. I'm not sure who thinks he can make money off of Formula 1, but this guy is apparently buddies with Bernie, so maybe he has some insight.

4. The X Factor. See: Austin Grand Prix to Face Questions... There is a lot that goes into putting a race on, not to mention building a track, and this just seems to scratch the surface. These kind of things take years to prepare (like 5 or 10, not 2) and it sounds like not all the homework has been done.

Again, I hate being a naysayer, but I'm extremely skeptical that a Formula 1 race will be held in Austin next year. I'm also extremely skeptical that the track will be completed. If it is, it won't stay open long. There's an aura about all things "F1" that makes people lose all sorts of common sense and throw every dollar they have at it-when it clearly isn't enough. The USGP has failed at numerous locations, including Best Spot In The World for it, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, at least three "US F1" teams have been announced and started in the past ten years, only to have gone nowhere. I applaud the ambition of a promoter who wants to try it, but I'll be shocked if the race goes off a year from now.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Pit Penalties

One of the themes of Sunday's Milwaukee 225 Indycar race was pit road chaos.
Eclipsing the Takuma Sato Keystone Kops routine in the first round of stops in controversy was something I didn't notice while watching the race. During the second round of stops, Dario Franchitti clipped one of the tires (and knocked the tire changer off-balance) set out for Will Power's imminent stop. No penalty was assessed, even though the rule book apparently clearly forbids any car from making contact with pit equipment or personnel. After the race, officials clarified their position by sharing the detail that crews had been instructed to move right front tires to give drivers pitting immediately ahead of them (as Dario was Power) room to pull in. Power's crewman, therefore, should have moved the right front tire out of the way of Dario Franchitti on his way in.

This might surprise any of my readers who think that I'm in the bag for Dario, but I think he should have been penalized. Intentional or not, he hit a piece of equipment on pit road and created a situation even more dangerous than the pits already are. Even if the equipment and/or crewman were in the wrong place, hitting them is still worthy of a penalty. (If one comes across a pedestrian in the middle of the road, is one allowed to go ahead and hit him?)

That said, if the crew did receive instructions to make way for drivers in downtrack pit stalls, then Power should have been penalized, as well. After all, they broke a rule/ignored a command by race officials.

As it stands, it appears that the accusations of inconsistent or unclear officiating continue to have merit. Just because an infraction causes no inconvenience or injury does not mean that no penalty should be issued. In fact, it's necessary for a penalty to be issued in order to maintain consistency and rules clarity. Conversely, if a driver's questionable actions cause a drop in position for him or her, that is not sufficient punishment. The infraction needs to be recognized, called out, explained, and enforced. Doing otherwise brings the credibility of the series into question.

All that said, history shows that there probably won't be any changes to Sunday's results. It's time to put this issue in the past and leave it there. Like it or not, there are no asterisks in the history books. It's not the first, nor will it be the last time that the dominant/popular car/team/driver was shown favortism. The best that can be done is to make our feelings known and hope that series officials and leadership take notice.

While on the subject of Dario, he's not doing his image any favors. Right or wrong, his consistent complaining (even in the face of success) is a huge fan turn-off. Maybe he should air his complaints to the officials behind closed doors (and he might be, for all I know). Besides, I'll admit to not being an expert, but I'm not sure where Helio blocked him late in Sunday's race.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Milwaukee Review

I attended my second Indycar race of the season at the Milwaukee Mile today. Overall: A great race, and it sounds like more even more drama has come to light since I got home.

I waited to buy my ticket, keeping my eye on the promotions and available tickets. It didn't seem like much had been sold even up until last Thursday, when I went to take advantage of one of the promotions and got pretty much the exact ticket I wanted (South Terrace, bleacher FF, row 18).
Both the fact that most seats were unsold and that the people selling the tickets seemed very confused about when their own promotions began and ended were troubling. It also bugged me that, aside from some radio ads, I saw about zero promotion for this race. Hopefully everyone (ahem, Randy B.) sees this as a building year and will come back bigger and better in 2012.

I enjoyed following the buildup to the race in the usual media outlets. It was especially fun seeing the drivers tweet about the local places I know about.

In unsurprising developments, Dario won the pole. Helio qualified in second, with Dixon in third. Lest you think this was more domination by the Galactic Empire, starting spots 4 through 6 were taken by the KV Racing entries. Championship leader and three-time (so far) winner this year Will Power started a surprising 17th. Simona De Silvestro made yet another trip to the hospital when she wrecked in qualifying.

Sunday morning broke rainy. At least in my neighborhood. Checking the weather turned up a window in the weather that would be open at least until the race started. I was worried about rain all day, but no more came.

I parked right outside the main gates of State Fair Park, near many other enthusiastic race fans. Good for me (especially when I figured out how to leave quickly), but worrisome that these prime parking spots were available just a couple of hours before race time.

First up was a tour of the usual merchandise trailers and souvenir tents. (Great to see one for Newman-Haas drivers Hinchcliffe and Servia) I think the caliber and quantity of apparel has improved since even Indy. This is a subject I'll be tackling further in the near future...

I scored a Spotter's Guide (great for new fans and a perfect souvenir for myself) at the Izod area, and checked out the 2012 Dallara oval car mock-up. I still like it and hope that something with its wheel shields and shark fins makes it to the grid in 2012.

Pippa Mann was onstage for a Q & A session, and demonstrated why she should be a star in the series. Her bubbly personality came through, and she actually suggested taking questions from the audience.

Up here, Danica Patrick still gets the loudest cheers during driver introductions. Simona, Kanaan, and Castroneves were far behind. Interestingly, the only driver to get no applause whatsoever was EJ Viso.

Finally, the start of the race. Immediately the intimacy of Milwaukee compared to, say, Indy was apparent as the field thundered into turn one. Unfortunately, Ryan Hunter-Reay didn't make it very far past turn one after spinning by himself and backing into the wall. At least no one would confuse he and his GoDaddy colors with Danica Patrick and her goDaddy colors for the rest of the day.

Dario quickly asserted himself as the car to beat, though the rest of the field was up for grabs and positions changed hands often. I hope there was no complaining about the racing today... Sebastian Saavedra and Vitor Meira took turns being "uncharacteristic guy in the way of the fast cars." Vitor would eventually park the car with handling problems (Did someone at Foyt misplace the Milwaukee notebook? Paul Tracy's car in 2009 was notably awful, as well). Saavedra would end up being in the wrong place when Alex Lloyd spun later. All three KV cars were in the mix, at least until the first pit stops.

First, I'm finding that I need more practice watching live pit stops. For all the open-wheel races I've been to, I realize now that the pits were clearly visible at only a few. Second, a lot happened in the pits in this race. Takuma Sato ("The KV Racing Driver Who Wrecks a Lot, But Not As Much As Viso") looked like he wanted to pit in Scott Dixon's stall. One result was a loose tire that made everyone downstream on pit road thread the needle to avoid it. I think he also hit one of his own crewmen and may have made Dixon's spotter drop an F-bomb on ABC. Unmitigated disaster, in other words.

I'm not sure happened with the Will Power tire and Dario on the second pitstops, though I have an interesting photo that might shed some light on it... I'll have to wait for the video.
Tony Kanaan passed Franchitti for the lead late in the second stint, and promptly left him behind.

On final pit stops, Helio Castroneves got past the leaders to control the race for himself. He raised Dario's ire by his behavior on the restart (again, I'll have to see the video), but word soon spread that he had a left rear tire going down. Before he could pit and give away his lead (and a lap or two), Tony Kanaan spun by himself in turn 4 and knocked a couple of corners off of his car. Helio could now pit to replace his tire with minimal loss of position and Dario was relieved of his primary competition for the lead.

The last restart had the leaders lined up: Dario, Graham Rahal, Will Power, and Oriol Servia. When the green flew, Rahal's efforts were for nought as Dario held his lead. Servia capitalized on the opportunity and passed Power for third. Helio tried using his fresh tires to advantage, but really didn't make much progress. Dario pulled out about a 1.6 second lead on Rahal that he would hold for the rest of the race (I timed the interval every lap-Rahal had nothing for Dario).

The finishers:
1. Dario-the class of the field. Dominated without running away, if that makes any sense. I think he has a lot of legitimate complaints, but maybe he should air them in private, especially after winning. I'm a big Dario fan, but sometimes its hard to spread his gospel...
2. Graham-Had a quiet day of slowly moving up. Almost surprised to see him up this high at the end. If I'm counting right, that's 3 top 5s in 4 races. Won't be long before he wins a few of these.
3. Servia-Another guy who was in the hunt all day. One wonders how much better he could have done without the pit stop that dropped him to ninth mid-race. Again, I'd like to see the video.
4. Power-Again, quietly picked his way to the front position-by-position. Did exactly what he needed to in order to pick up points.
5. Patrick-What? Where did she come from? I'm not even sure she was in the top ten for most of the day. On the lead lap, sure, but silent otherwise.
6. Hinchcliffe-He hung around in the top 10 all day, finally getting up to sixth as the best-finishing rookie.
7. Dixon-For every bit of good luck Dario gets, Dixon gets a bit of bad. I heard he had a broken front wing today, and there was the pit incident with Sato.
8. Sato-What? The sole surviving KV car, yet he still suffered through plenty of problems.
9. Helio-I feel a little bad for him, but if Dario is right I'll change my mind when I see the video.
10. Justin Wilson-Looked racy early on, but had to settle for 10th. For someone who is supposedly only good on road courses, he acquitted himself well.

Overall, I thought it was a great race, even if the drama wasn't (usually) about the leader. I'm sure I'll have more to talk about after watching a replay, but for now I'll go to bed happy and hope that my next Indycar race will be sooner than 11 months from now...

Friday, June 17, 2011

On Randy Bernard

Once again, the world of Indycar racing has not failed to give its legions of fans something to talk about. Thursday night, series CEO Randy Bernard appeared on the Trackside with Cavin and Kevin radio show (also available in convenient podcast form, so none of the aforementioned legions has an excuse for missing this essential weekly discussion show). He talked about a number of things, some expected and some not.
First, the events and opinions surrounding the Texas Twin races last weekend. It's well known that not everyone was pleased with the halftime show and blind draw for the second race's grid. The good and the bad were pointed out and discussed. The good: the fans in the stands seemed to love it, every driver got some TV time, interest was created. The bad: Race One winner Dario Franchitti was relegated to the 28th starting position while his nemesis Will Power drew the 3rd starting place, the show ran a little long, and TV ratings didn't improve as much as was hoped-a situation exacerbated by the long intra-race break. To Bernard's credit, he admitted that a mistake was made and that at least two changes would be made for next year's Twin races (even if they aren't held at Texas): A blind draw will not be used to set the field for the second race, and the halftime show will be shorter. Good moves, and probably the best compromise even with all this year's format's advantages.
He also pointed out that, with tobacco sponsorship out of the picture, Indycar is free to market to kids again. They've already begun with reduced minimum ages for pit and paddock passes this year, but I'm looking forward to whatever else they have in mind. Naysayers may observe that 10 year olds can't buy tickets, souvenirs, concessions, etc, but they have parents who do. Parents that might indulge their children's interest and take them to races, buy merchandise, etc, and create fans for life.
While ratings were up less than hoped for at Texas, Bernard also pointed out that ratings number will be slow to improve and that we should not be discouraged by slow short-term growth. Many things in life happen much slower than we'd like, and this is no different. We should not expect Milwaukee to sell out this weekend, nor should we expect its ratings to beat those for NASCAR at Michigan (though anyone flipping channels between races will likely find the better one to be on the West side of Lake Michigan). Groundwork will be laid, however, and after a couple of years much more progress should have been made.
LinkThe big moment was when he talked about working on getting a race run at Phoenix International Raceway. The understanding was that Bernard wished to run a race early in the year, before NASCAR's flagship Daytona 500 in February. His hope was to run on the oval at Phoenix, but he revealed tonight that, after placing a number of calls to the track president there, none were returned. Bernard was clearly insulted by this and had some choice words for PIR's leadership. Good for him. Talk tough with the ISC tracks (which are, in essence, controlled by NASCAR's leadership). It is baffling that they wouldn't want to talk about holding an event that would make them money... There is a precedent, however. (And I'm going partially on memory and partially on search engine results here) In Champ Car's final years, they made overtures to run a race at PIR. They were offered an embarrassing Thursday night date before the NASCAR weekend. Rejecting this proposal, the Champ Car leadership pursued a street race in downtown Phoenix. As they dealt with the local government to make it happen, PIR's track leadership (the same individual who allegedly hasn't returned Bernard's calls) and NASCAR stepped in and offered opinions that such a race would not be worthwhile, again using pointed language. That race was eventually cancelled, and Champ Car merged with Indycar not long afterward.
From an outside observer's perspective, it appears that Indycar isn't wanted at PIR. As long as the current leadership is in place, it should probably stay away. Which is just as well. Two Cup dates at the track (that I doubt sell it out) are very steep competition.
Instead, I suggest another venue for an early-season race. A 500-miler at California Speedway. The climate should be good and there is only one NASCAR date to compete with.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Milwaukee Preview

This weekend, the Izod Indycar series returns to the venerable Milwaukee Mile after a year’s absence. Its return to the schedule was requested by fans, series CEO Randy Bernard, and (especially) the drivers. Unlike the cookie-cutter mile and a halfs, Milwaukee is a bullring that cannot be taken flat out and requires more driver activity and skill.

Before moving to the greater Milwaukee media market (I don’t think my current municipality of residence can be considered ‘suburban’), I honestly hadn’t given the race much thought. I’d been aware of its place in history, but aside from a couple of ghastly incidents, I don’t think I ever paid much attention. Even after moving here, personal turbulence kept me away from races. In 2009, I was suffering through the middle of a period of extended unemployment when attending the Indy 500 after a six year hiatus proved therapeutic. I debated off and on attending the Mile race before finally deciding that a half hour drive and a parking-lot ticket were small prices to pay for another great time at the races. The race did not disappoint, and I now always make an effort to attend whatever races I can.

I think this race has real potential for being a community event and a highlight of the calendar. And I’m not just saying that because it’s my home track. Milwaukee (like Indianapolis) is that rare major race track that’s actually located well within a city. As part of the state fairgrounds, it is surrounded on all sides by business districts and residential areas. Those potential spectators and profit-making businesspeople stand to benefit in ways not possible for even neighbors of downtown street circuits. They have a literal home race, one that could actually be in their backyard. And it’s an oval-arguably the easier race for the new or inexperienced fan to get into and follow. Hopefully the current promoters will be able to exploit the track’s advantages in location, layout, and race-loving residents and return Milwaukee to a place of prominence on the schedule.

Since May began with a fly-away event in Brazil and continued with the extravaganza that is the run-up to Indianapolis, and was followed by the experimental Texas Twin 275s, Milwaukee is the first “normal” race in more than two months. There will be no Byzantine qualifying procedure, no parade, no halftime show draw, nothing fancy-just a race. Which is kind of refreshing. After a month of May most of them would rather forget, the five Penske and Ganassi drivers showed last week that the world is not ready to spin off its axis. With two wins and seven top fives between them, the paddock was reminded who the dominant forces in the series are.

Will Power has to remain the favorite after tossing the oval monkey off his back last week. I’ll spare my readers further discussion of the other Galactic Empire drivers. Graham Rahal qualified on the front row here in 2009 and finished best-in-class (4th) in a Newman-Haas car. I’ll make the logical extension and mention current Newman-Haas pilot, veteran Oriol Servia, as well. Danica Patrick strikes me as the most likely of the Andretti Autosport drivers to have a good day. Tony Kanaan can’t ever be counted out (and is a two-time winner here), and it’s entirely possible the Sam Schmidt Motorsports stable will surprise again. Most wins among active drivers is Paul Tracy with 4, but it remains to be seen if his team can keep up with Penske and Ganassi on an oval.

I’m looking forward to a good race, with double-file restarts, some passes for the lead, and a lot of action through the field.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Texas Review

My evening was planned out to the minute: Eat dinner, prepare eldest child for bed, watch start of Texas Twin 275s, get eldest child to bed, enjoy remainder of Twin 275s in order to watch two thrilling, down-to-the-wire, side-by-side finishes after a total of 550 kilometers of thrilling, side-by-side racing. Didn't quite work out that way. Eldest child resisted bedtime (slightly), the baby completely resisted bedtime, and the trademark Texas racing didn't materialize. The first two weren't surprising in the least, the third was.

Not that things were bad, just not what I expected.

The weirdness began with the start of the race. Polesitter Alex Tagliani got a good jump on the field on the way to the green flag-which didn't come out. What??? A bad start was actually waved off??? I was under the impression that this was not to happen... Oh well. Good for them. It did bring up a couple of questions. First, why is it that the otherwise very good Versus broadcast doesn't do a very good job of letting you know when the field is actually going to start the race? I'm always caught slightly by surprise when the green comes out. Second, did the first lap after the aborted start count? I imagine that could have thrown some fuel strategies off.

The rest of the race was pretty sedate. Dario got into the lead and dominated. The only caution came late when rookies Wade Cunningham (starting his first race) and Charlie Kimball (two weeks after getting an inordinate amount of attention for tripping up JR Hildebrand with his 150 mph pace) came together and wrecked. Leader Dario was among the first cars to the mess, which could have been dramatic, but he dismissed it as any sort of big deal during the post-race interview.

Post (double-file) restart got kind of crazy, but everyone behaved themselves. Though Danica got pretty angry with Jay Howard when he pushed her up to the front stretch wall. On the radio she promised to "chop" him if he tried anything in the second race. A question: would such a premeditated, threatened block be called as such if it actually happened? Or would officials find some rationalization? (Wow I'm being harsh tonight)

The closing laps were pretty good as Will Power tried desperately to get to the front to win his first oval race over Target teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Dixon did everything he could to win the race, pulling alongside at the start/finish line, but he didn't appear to have Dario's speed.

The halftime show with the blind draw for the second race's starting lineup was entertaining when the drivers made a show of it (Hinchcliffe, Servia, and Kanaan, I'm applauding you). Dario was pretty unhappy when he saw his starting position, but more on that later.

The second race promised to be exciting: TK on the pole, with Cunningham alongside (in a backup car), Power behind in third, and Rahal in fourth. And the action was pretty good, even if TK couldn't hold on to the lead forever. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Paul Tracy looked good, but seemed to fade at the end. Race One surprises KV racing were either invisible (Viso and Sato) or faded behind the Galactic Empire entrants. Dario fought his way to the top 10, but ran out of time.

There was little doubt that Power would break through and get his first oval win. Dixon finished second again, followed by the rest of the Penske squad. The most dramatic moment of the race happened when Graham Rahal's fuel pump failed and he slowed as Power approached for his final pit stop. Power went on to win comfortably in an atypical Texas result. Post-race interviews were conspicuous for their ignorance of Rahal (the fuel pump info came from a Rahal Tweet later in the evening) and the Target boys' comments.

Certain bloggers and personalities will jump all over Dario for whining about a luck-based starting system determining the results of a big-time, professional, championship racing event. Thing is, he's right. Thanks to luck, his qualifying speed and winning race one result were nullified for the second race. Meanwhile, championship rival Will Power parlayed his third-place draw into a Race Two win as Dario was working through the field. The blind draw for the second race starting grid was the one aspect of the double-header format that didn't sit well with me. Dario suggested inverting the Race One starting order, but I'm not sure that's the best answer. It's an invitation for a Race One driver with a problem-or nothing to lose-to sandbag and get himself to the rear of the field. What would have even stopped someone (Hildebrand, say) from pulling off with two or three laps to go and parking in his pit stall? Instead, I have several ideas:

Have two qualifying segments: one for race one, the second for race two. The second could have been conducted, say, after the previous night's truck race.

Have a single qualifying segment of two or more laps. The first lap determines the starting order for the first race, the second lap determines the starting order for the second race.

Incorporate a pit stop into the qualifying lap (like what was done at the first Texas race in 1997). Total qualifying time sets first race grid, pit stop time sets second race grid.

(This isn't my idea, but I'm not sure where I heard it) Set second race grid by fastest first race lap.

Any of these ideas would set both grids by skill and should please the fans and the drivers.

Special comment: great job by Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon in the announcing booth. I hope, however, he's in a car for the rest of the season.

Next up is Milwaukee. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Texas Preview

If there’s an event on the schedule that can rival this year’s Indianapolis 500 in excitement, speed, and unpredictability, it’s the doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend.

Last week, 65 year-old NASCAR team owner Richard Childress took exception with driver Kyle Busch’s actions, reportedly put him in a headlock, and punched him several times. Allegedly. Indy car fans may note that this is not the first time a cantankerous car owner has physically assaulted another team’s driver. Allegedly. Fourteen years ago, what was then called the IRL ran for the first time at the new-for-1997 Texas Motor Speedway. AJ Foyt driver Billy Boat was flagged the winner and his team gathered in victory lane to celebrate. Freshly crowned two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk felt differently and was on his way to discuss his opinion of the results with… someone? AJ apparently didn’t appreciate this and kind of slapped/pushed Arie to the ground. Allegedly. The following day it was revealed that sanctioning body USAC had made a scoring error (allegedly), leading to the erroneous flagging of Boat as the winner and that the real winner was, in fact, Arie Luyendyk. (This was the second embarrassing public gaffe made by USAC in less than a fortnight. Allegedly. On the final lap of the Indianapolis 500, the flagman waved the green flag to unexpectedly end the last caution period. Adding to the confusion, the yellow caution lights remained on around the speedway as Arie took the green flag on the way to his second victory. Allegedly. The Texas race would be the last one sanctioned by USAC.)

Since 1997, Texas has become one of the cornerstones of the Indycar schedule. Well attended and adored by fans for its lap-after-lap side-by-side action, it is somewhat less popular with drivers. The current generation of Indy car is underpowered and overgripped here, leading to a situation not unlike restrictor plate NASCAR races: Drivers are forced to run side-by-side, in close quarters, and are unable to accelerate away from potential danger. The constant threat of danger makes watching a Texas race an exercise in breath-holding and nail-chewing. It’s not a condition I enjoy, but like NASCAR restrictor plate races, its popularity with the general fan base ensure that it will be a part of the Indycar series for the foreseeable future.

Two new factors will shape this year’s race, or I should say “races.” The 550 kilometer race has been separated into a pair of 275 kilometer events, each with its own winner and each paying half points and prize money. The grid for the first race will be set by traditional qualifying; the second by blind draw during the one hour inter-race break. Already nerve-wracking racing at Texas promises to be more so, compounded by the double-file restart procedure. I'm surprised the drivers aren't making a big stink about the rules here like they did at Indianapolis.

On to the handicapping. It was clear that everyone, from the loftiest media outlet to nearly every fan, wanted to pick someone from outside the Big Five Galactic Empire teams to win. It was also clear that no one wanted to lose any money on the race, so almost no one actually chose a non-Penske or Ganassi car to win the race. In fact, the Galactic Empire's Indy meltdown was surprising in its totality. One wonders if these five teams will show their usual invincibility, or if every air gun and fuel rig on pit road will simultaneously fail again. My picks:

1. Dario Franchitti - (Hey, I'm hedging my bets. Again.) Will be on a mission after Indy. Do not get in his way...

2. Tony Kanaan - He's Tony Kanaan. And he's tasted the podium this year. Won't be long before the KV car is in victory lane. Maybe that podium flavor will inspire team leadership to find a way to crash less often.

3. Graham Rahal - Momentum + Galactic Empire Equipment =He's coming to the front or will wreck trying.

4. Will Power - May get as close to an oval win as ever.

5. Marco Andretti - Most Likely to Succeed of the Andretti cars

6. JR Hildebrand - New fan favorite would be higher up, but a) his knee appears to be injured, though he'll still drive and b) I gotta be contrarian.

I'm looking forward to Saturday night's races and will come back with a full report.

Also in the near future: My Sports Car Racing Manifesto.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2011 Indy 500 Notes, Continued

I’ll take one more look back at some items from the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 and the stories surrounding it.

Hot Wheels “Fearless at the 500” World Record Jump: Basically, a full-size Hot Wheels track (100’ tall) was built in order to launch a car on a world record jump attempt. Gimmicky? Sure, but if all the 8 year olds in the audience were as thrilled as my inner 8 year old was, it did its job.

Race finish controversy: It had to happen. As I mentioned before, there was no controversy about the finish of the race: the track was still green when Wheldon passed Hildebrand’s crippled car. Or so I thought. Race control has been criticized for waiting to throw the yellow, when it had done so much quicker in response to incidents earlier in the day.
Without considering any of the reasons they may have had for not throwing the yellow quicker, it probably would not have made a difference in the race’s outcome. When informed that Hildebrand had wrecked, Wheldon had two choices: maintain speed and attempt to pass Hildebrand before reaching the start/finish line, or slow down, where he could settle for second place or hope that the crippled car would stop before the line.
Wheldon had nothing to lose. By maintaining speed, he was able to pass Hildebrand, and did so before the yellow light came on.
If the yellow light had come on before he completed the pass, all hope was not lost. In the worst case scenario, he would have been moved behind Hildebrand in the final running order and finished second. In the best case scenario, the finish (with Hildebrand first) would have been reviewed or protested, based on the argument that Wheldon had no expectation of remaining behind a terminally damaged car under yellow or that Hildebrand had not maintained adequate average speed under the yellow (Marco Andretti was moved in front of Alex Lloyd in the 2010 race’s finishing order for this reason). Again, the worst case scenario in this situation is that he finishes second. The presence or absence of a yellow light on the last corner of the last lap of the race would not have affected Dan Wheldon’s actions, and would not likely have affected the outcome of the race.

Double-file restarts: Yes, they were hairy, but no one seemed to have a problem making them work. I mentioned before that some of the restarts had lapped cars in some of the top positions, which I have yet to hear an explanation for. The point of double-file restarts is line cars up in their running order: 1st place on the inside of the front row, 2nd place outside of the front row, 3rd place on the inside of row 2, 4th on the outside of row 2, and so on. I wonder how the restarts would have played out if they’d been prevented from accelerating until the middle of the front stretch, as had been the original plan. I guess the question would be, how fast would they be entering turn one and how many wide could they go at that point? In retrospect, perhaps having the acceleration point in the north short chute was the best possible move in that it allowed the big mess to occur on the front stretch and get sorted out before turn one. Personally, I’m more concerned about double-file restarts during Saturday night’s doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway. The current Indy car has too little power and too much grip for the speeds at that track as it is. Bunching everyone up for all the restarts seems like a bad idea, but that’s for another blog post.

Hmm. Well, that’s it for now, I guess.

I do owe you some photos from the race weekend, please bear with me. I’ll get them up.

I’ll just add a shameless request: I’m planning to attend the June 19 Indycar race at Milwaukee, but have not yet secured a ticket. If any of my readers has an extra or knows of someone with an extra, please drop me a line. Thanks!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Why Indycar Will Race In Japan

One good thing about blogging about the Izod Indycar series is that there never lacks for subject matter. I had started a “Final Indy Review” post, plus I still owe you some photos, but something else has been on my mind.

Apparently the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster/breach of hell’s gates that struck Japan earlier this year damaged the racing surface of the oval track at Twin Ring Motegi-site of a September 17 Indycar race. Indycar announced last week that the race will be held, but moved to the road course located on the same site as the oval. This sounded to me like the nearest thing to an ideal solution possible at this point. I was surprised to discover that many do not share my opinion, with much of the vitriol focused on the replacement of one of the series’ oval races with another road course. The benefits of holding the race on the road course outweigh those of canceling the event or moving it to a stateside oval.

A race, particularly one held on another continent, is not a trivial undertaking. It is a business in and of itself that must on some level take care of facility scheduling, maintenance, staffing, promotion, marketing, organization, cleanup, race control, sanctioning, traffic flow, safety, and probably a thousand other items. This business protects itself and its investment with a contract negotiated and enforced by an army of lawyers. It will not allow itself to be easily cancelled or removed without significant penalty.
On the other side, Indycar also has an investment in the event. It expects a significant sanction fee from the promoter, has engaged in its own marketing, has a TV deal, and has worked out the logistics of moving two dozen race teams from middle America to the Far East and back.
Simply canceling the event would incur whatever penalties are specified in the contract. Considering the investment and work put into the event by the Motegi personnel, this is certainly significant. Add in Indycar’s marketing cost, the portion of the TV deal, logistics (I’m pretty sure that scheduling a pair of 747 cargo planes isn’t like a Hertz rental car that can be cancelled with a week’s notice) and the sanctioning fee, and cancellation becomes an extremely expensive propositon.
Instead, a solution has been found where the biggest change is which suspension and aero parts the teams pack with their cars. Oval track racing fans aren’t happy that they’ve lost a date on the schedule at their favorite type of track, but I have trouble seeing how the alternative (no race at all) is preferable.
It’s been suggested that, if the race were cancelled, a North American track could step up and take the date over. I am skeptical of this. Right now, there are just over three months before September 17. In order for a track to put such an event together, it would have to: Have the date free, have the track configured and equipped for an Indycar race, have resources to pay the sanctioning fee, have personnel ready to work, and promote and sell tickets. The last item sounds particularly tough. Many events on the schedule have trouble selling many tickets, even with 8 or 9 or more months of promotion. Do they expect to sell similar or greater numbers of tickets with less notice? Every schedule printed to date has “Motegi” in place for September 17. How does a promoter change that in people’s minds?

Now I’m not a fan of this event. I can’t believe that many people stay up late to watch a race from a series they’re barely aware of in the first place. It does nothing to improve or sell the product to the intended (read: American) audience. I understand that it is on the schedule as a favor to engine supplier Honda, who I believe owns the track. Indycar management appears to realize this, and the 2011 event is scheduled to be the last at the facility.

The fact remains that this event is on the 2011 schedule, and Indycar is legally and morally obligated to make every attempt to run it, even under mitigating circumstances. When a set of those circumstances arose, Indycar came up with a simple solution to what could have been an expensive, messy problem.