Monday, May 30, 2011

2011 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race

Yes, the race was fantastic! A great race and a great weekend. Yes, it's only late Monday night that I'm able to get to a computer and put something to record.

First, it was great to see everyone-whether for the first time or after a long time: Speedgeek (Andy), Mike from Indycals, George, Susan, JohnMc, and the rest of the Nashville gang, Dave (yes, I Know Dave Dusick), Palmer, seatmates Drew and friends, and anyone else I've made the horrible error of omitting.

I'll follow up with some photos in a near-future post, but tonight I'll just get some thoughts down.

As promised, the pre-race activities were great. I might have mixed the order up a bit, but here goes...

I missed the parades of 1911 cars and past winning cars, which I regret.

The servicemen and women that toured the track in pickup trucks received what may have been the longest continual ovation I have ever seen.

The parade of former winners in convertibles was interesting, but begs the question, "what about the guys who didn't show?"

Most of the crowd (of what-300,000? 350,000?) sang along to "God Bless America." That same crowd was entirely silent while "Taps" played.

This is at least the third race I've attended that a B-2 did the flyover. It never gets old seeing that bat-shaped hole in the sky.

Three Rows of 11 Race Start: Better than in past years, but Dixon still had a big jump. Not perfect, but I guess I shouldn't complain.

Double-File Restarts: Weren't these supposed to be a bloodbath? Looked good to me. Oh, except for the lapped cars that were mixed in with the leaders on more than one occasion. WTF?

I raised the question of a controversial finish right away. I was wrong. The rules are clear, and the tape makes it even clearer. No controversy.

Dan Wheldon-Ran an awesome race. Stayed in the top 5 and demonstrated speed all day. Was where he needed to be when it counted. I do believe he is the first 500 winner to lead exactly one lap in the race. A feel-great victory for he and Bryan Herta. (How does Izod feel about the William Rast car winning?) His exuberance exceeded even Helio's, making him even easier to cheer for.

JR Hildebrand-Ran an even better race for all but a split second. Had the presence of mind to keep his foot in it, even as his car traveled on two wheels. Lurked in the top 5 and top 10, saved tons of fuel, and may have been the most gracious loser ever (see: Marco Andretti, 2006). Very impressive for a rookie. I'm not the only one saying a race win for him is likely this year.

Graham Rahal-Wow. Every time we looked up, he was passing another car. GREAT job, even if the TV broadcast didn't show it. He and that team will also win a race this year. When the Galactic Empire suffered at Indy and Brazil, he was in the right place.

Tony Kanaan-Almost as good as Graham. Was relatively quiet until late in the race, when he became, well, Tony Kanaan. Lots of passes.

Scott Dixon-The favorite. I'm not sure why he wound up in 5th, other than fuel strategy that came up short. Didn't dominate the race, but he controlled it.

Oriol Servia-Ran up front, led a number of laps, and brought the car home. That's why you hire Oriol Servia. Was able to challenge the Target cars at times. He'll win soon.

Bertrand Baguette-Part time rookie leads late, comes within a few laps of winning. Became many fans' favorite when he passed Danica for the lead. I don't know much about him, but he seems to be well-respected. Look forward to learning and seeing more.

Tomas Scheckter-What? Has there been a mistake? Great run. Stayed (mostly) quiet. For once, "The Other KV Guy That Didn't Wreck."

Marco Andretti-Looked to be in good shape after the last caution, but it didn't come together. Still, he was a force all day and I'm surprised to see he didn't lead any laps.

Danica Patrick-Most Polarizing Driver lurked quietly and looked to be a factor near the end. Maybe if there had been more cautions in the last quarter of the race.

Ed Carpenter-Never seemed all that fast (or, always seemed to be getting set up for a pass), but managed to usually be in a good position. He even led three laps.

Dario Franchitti-After his gamble on the last yellow, we thought he might be unbeatable. We didn't realize that he was actually short on fuel. Surprised that he only led 10 laps. Otherwise, he was classic Dario: Right up there, in contention, doing what needs to be done to be in position to win.

Will Power-I'd call losing a wheel in the pits an accident, but pit road mistakes seem to be the rule for Penske teams at Indy the past few years.

Helio Castroneves-Was nowhere all day (even a lap down) until he bumped with RHR and cut a tire (something I'm not sure ever made it on TV).

Ryan Hunter-Reay-Maintained a low profile. Probably a good thing considering last week's big story.

Paul Tracy-Obvious from the stands that he had a terrible-handling race car. At least he was running at the end.

Townsend Bell/Ryan Briscoe-Guys with solid runs all day in the top 5 and top 10, respectively. May have been contenders if not for the crash.

Again, a great race with a shocking finish. I am glad I was able to take it in, and look forward to next year. Special thanks to Speedgeek Andy, my understanding wife, and my very helpful mom.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Time to go

First, after a carb day that promises to be 20 degrees cooler than race day, I'm not changing any of my picks. Since I didn't hear of anyone wadding up a car, I doubt that very much of today's running was applicable to Sunday.

I need to extend special thanks to my understanding wife and my helpful mom. They are contributing big time to my enjoyment of this weekend!

The bags are packed, the car is fueled, I'm ready to go. In a few short hours, I'll steer the car south and be on my way to the Speedway. Good night all, hope to see you shortly,

Preliminary Race Picks

With race day fast approaching, it's time to start winnowing the field and picking the one guy who's going to win the race. But that's really hard and not much fun, so I'm going to pick a top 10. It's called "hedging my bets."

Much has been made of the Galactic Empire-like dominance of the Penske and Target Gannassi cars. They have won 8 of the last 11 500s and all but three races in the last two seasons. Popular sentiment, as one might imagine, runs against these 5 cars, and that's been buoyed by a front row containing cars from two other teams. The 500 is a different kind of race: since 2008, only 6 of the 15 available top-5s have gone to Galactic Empire teams. First, the 500 is a long enough race that alternative strategies have time to play out and work-something that doesn't happen in a 300 miler at Chicagoland or a sub 2 hour street circuit race. Second, when bad luck bites at Indy, it tends to bite hard. Recent years have seen a rash of pit road mistakes by the major teams. Only Sam Hornish was able to overcome one of these, in 2006, and then just barely.

So think of this as a "who to watch" list for the race. I'm trying to maintain a positive tone, so I'm not mentioning those teams/drivers that I think will encounter trouble (and I do think some will). I also reserve the right to change my mind up until leaving the Coke lot on Sunday morning, and may make major adjustments after carb day.

Without further ado:

  1. Scott Dixon – Could have been on the pole if not for fuel issue. The most effortless, deadly fast of the Galactic Empire cars.
  2. Dario Franchitti – Ordinarily a number 1 pick, but he didn’t have quite the speed Dixon did in qualifying. His experience and savvy make him likely to be up front at the end. (Now I'm wondering if his slower-than-Dixon pace in qualifying was the result of an optimized race setup insufficiently trimmed out for qualifying, which-combined I think with a great pit selection-may make him more dangerous in the race.)
  3. Oriol Servia – Will probably be a popular pick to win, the better for taking down the Penske/Gannassi onslaught. He just might do it, and nothing would make me happier.
  4. Townsend Bell – Fast in qualifying after two straight strong results as a one-off.
  5. Marco Andretti – Honorary member of the Galactic Empire (his car owner father may be the least popular person in Indianapolis this week). Truth is, he’s always fast at Indy (Three podiums in five starts) and has demonstrated much-improved maturity this year.
  6. Dan Wheldon – Veteran steps into the cockpit and picks up right where he left off. Seems happier and more relaxed with former teammate Herta’s team and after four race “vacation.”
  7. JR Hildebrand – He’s a fast rookie with the 2nd place team from the last three years.
  8. Justin Wilson – Despite popular opinion, one of the top five drivers in the series, on road courses and ovals.
  9. Tony Kanaan – Is he ever not a threat? Especially at Indy? Much better off than last year’s 33rd place starting position. And he ran as high as second then. I'm not concerned about his KV team.
  10. Alex Lloyd – Another driver hoping to follow up a great 2010 finish. Pulled out a great qualifying run when it counted.

Oh-I seem to have left off a Penske car. That might be a problem. I had better hedge my bets and add one more:

  1. Will Power – Strongest Penske driver in the field. Riding momentum and desire.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nostalgia and Sentimentality and my History with the 500

I was going to expand on the last post and complain about the lack of comprehension or understanding of the role money has played in racing since, oh, about the beginning of time. But I've decided I'm tired of the whole thing and am not really interested in rehashing or explaining it further.
I'm preparing my picks for the race, but I don't think I'm ready to share those, either. So I'll go with something a little more positive.
I love the 500. I was 17 when I first visited the track, went to the museum, stayed at the Brickyard Crossing Motel, and took the bus tour. The receipt from that tour "Certified that the bearer of this ticket has completed one lap of the '500' mile race course," or words to that effect. Awkward grammar aside, I thought it was so cool that they still referred to it as the "Indianapolis 500 Mile Race"-it sounds so old-school. That ticket went on the wall of my bedroom where it reminded me of what was really the most prestigious race in the world was.
I can't pretend to have watched every race since I became a race fan (a preoccupation with NASCAR, allowing real life to interrupt, etc kind of kept me from it), but the seeds were really planted when I found myself among a group of die-hard race fans. Unfortunately, this was at the Split's beginning and I had never heard of the vast majority of the race's entrants. In those first years of the Split, I gravitated towards the CART side of the room and ignored most of the IRL races. Save, of course, for the 500. By 1999 or so, I had tired of NASCAR and had become a huge CART fan. In 2000, Chip Gannassi became the first CART owner to cross the picket line and enter the 500 with phenom Juan Montoya and veteran Jimmy Vasser. It was a week before the race when a good friend offered me a ticket. This moment, I realized later, had a big impact on, well, the rest of my life. I was excited. Even though the field wasn't what it had been in the CART years, I was still going to the Indianapolis 500!!! That weekend, not only did I take in the race, but I met up with old friends and kindled an enthusiasm for attending actual, live, professional car races. No longer was watching on TV good enough. I returned in 2001 (Tony Stewart doing the double! Helio climbing the wall!), 2002 (I am absolutely certain that Paul Tracy did NOT win that race), and 2003. Personal life intervened, and I stayed home for the 2004 race. It was not fun, and the rain delay kept me from watching the whole thing. I missed the races in '05, '06,'07, and '08 for various reasons.
In the midst of some great personal difficulty, I found myself able to attend once again in 2009. I had forgotten how good, how right, how at-home I felt in the stands with a good friend and a stopwatch. The race seemed to have waned a bit more, even since 2003, but there was a little spark-something that, despite the lack of passing and the spec car and a red-and-white-clad winner, said that the 500 was on its way back.
At home, things were improving as the 2010 race approached and I found myself able to attend again. As good as 2009 was, 2010 was better. My friends and I took part in a "fan forum" as part of the series' leadership sought to improve the sport we loved. I met bloggers and fellow fantasy racers and good friends, and even saw midgets race at IRP the night before the 500. Race day saw the most electric atmosphere I had yet seen at the track. The race didn't disappoint, as my favorite driver showed the world just how good he is, then won in a thrilling conclusion.
This year promises even more. I've listened to every one of the daily episodes of Trackside, The Talk of Gasoline Alley, the Centennial Celebration, and MoreFrontWing's Centennial Interview Series. Somehow, I'm not burned out. I'm looking forward to Sunday's race more than ever-the marching bands, taps, box lunches, flyovers, Jim Nabors, Gentlemen Start Your Engines, the Coke Lot, Union Jack's, vintage race cars, friends new and old, and all the other pieces that make up the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Hope to see you there!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tough Situation

It appears that Indy 500 bumpee Ryan Hunter-Reay will race on Sunday after all. According to reports, Andretti Autosport team owner Michael Andretti has a deal with AJ Foyt to put RHR in the #41 car qualified by Bruno Junquiera. This doesn't surprise me at all. Judging by reactions on Twitter, this is an extraordinarily unpopular decision.
I can't find fault with the process, however. Andretti and RHR have obligations to their sponsors Sun Drop and DHL and missing a race (particularly the 100th anniversary 500) is likely a costly proposition to them. So it's not surprising that Andretti went in search of a seat in the big show for RHR. In fact, John Andretti was interviewed Sunday and asked if he would step aside in the event one of his AA teammates missed the show. (His answer: Maybe for his dad or uncle.) AJ's second car is reportedly self-funded, so it's in his best interest to accept whatever compensation Michael can offer. Honestly, Bruno had little chance of winning the race anyway.
Hunter-Reay is probably embarrassed by not making the race, but wants to make his boss and his sponsors happy, and, if given the option, would choose to be in the race.
The loser here is Bruno. He qualified for the race in 2009, only to be removed in a similar situation and replaced by 2011 polesitter Alex Tagliani. Bruno was repaid for his sacrifice in 2010 when Tagliani gave him a ride in a team car. Just to demonstrate his talent, Bruno ran a grand total of 7 laps-and qualified with the 7th fastest time. He returned this year in the Foyt car, only to get pushed out again.
This is an unfortunate situation. Every one acted in his best interests, within the rules, and a fast, talented driver who earned his way into the field will have to watch the race on TV. What should have been done in this situation? Is there even a way to prevent this from occurring again? I wish I had something more profound to say, but I'm at a loss and can't really blame any one for his actions.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is It Too Early To Set An Alarm for Saturday Morning?

Bump day has come and gone, and given us more drama and excitement than two seasons of "boys have at it" stock car racing. I tuned in around 4:15 Indy time to a track that might not get dry, with Danica Patrick on the outside looking in, among other stories.

Sure enough, the track got dried and Danica went out and got in the field. It became obvious that Mike Conway (Not the series most recent winner, as I suggested in my last post. He won two races ago at Long Beach.) wouldn't make it, which was a disappointment. The action really heated up the final available minutes. I was surprised to see Alex Lloyd have the speed (it sounds like he was, too), but more surprised his times didn't drop off on subsequent laps. Marco got out just in time and bumped his way back into the field-at the expense of his teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay.
I like RHR. A lot. I don't understand why it took so long for him to get a regular, top-flight ride. It seems like he's won in everything throughout his career, which is saying a lot. So I'm disappointed he won't be in the show. I'd be less excited about Marco making the field, but he has shown a lot more maturity lately and is always good at the Speedway.

Bottom line, it will be an interesting race. I'll save my predictions for later in the week, but I think it would be wise to keep an eye on Oriol Servia and the Chip Ganassi A-teams. Provided they hire a new fueler.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Qualifying, Day 1

NASCAR's All-Star Race is billed as a no-holds-barred, knock-out, drag-out, bare-knuckle street fight among the hottest stock car drivers for a $1 million prize. Anyone who watched this year's event after seeing Pole Day at IMS might wonder what all the fuss is about. The stories that unfolded this afternoon in Indiana included:
A popular second-year driver overcoming injuries and a car old enough for vintage racing getting into the field.
One powerhouse team, including Indy's winningest active driver, struggling to find speed.
Four part-time or one-off driver/team combinations securing starting spots in the top 9.
A second powerhouse team, including the series most marketable driver, the scion of its most famous family, and the series most recent winner/2010 Indy 500 highlight reel star unable to guarantee berths in the field.
A popular underdog scoring pole position in the "World's Most Important Race."
A third powerhouse team, defending winners of the 500 and last three championships, making uncharacteristic embarrassing mistakes that cost one driver a front-row starting spot and another a real shot at the pole.

All those suffering difficulties have another shot on Sunday's Bump Day. It should be one of the single most exciting days Indy car racing has seen in some time. No matter what happens, May 29th's 500 will feature the most interesting grid in years.

Happy watching,

Friday, May 20, 2011

NASCAR - CUP: France Says ‘Have At It’ Has Limits

NASCAR - CUP: France Says ‘Have At It’ Has Limits

I thought it would take longer for me to have something to say about NASCAR. But, the "Have At It, Boys" policy has reared its ugly head once again. These drivers have trouble understanding where the limits are? Here's a hint: nearly knocking a car into the stands while on track-not so bad. Driverless race cars sent careening down crowded pit roads-yeah, that's a little more serious. Because, you know, there are bystanders around who shouldn't have to watch out for that sort of thing after the race is over. The line, boys, is that it's ok to "have at it" on the race track, but maybe you ought to cool it (at least with the race cars) after leaving the racing surface. Is it really so difficult to understand? Or is this some passive-aggressive way for drivers to duck responsibilty?

I'm glad I've only watched one NASCAR race to be bored to tears by this season.

Qualifying Preview

Until Friday, 2011 Indianapolis 500 practice has so far been dominated by: Cold weather and rain, Simona de Silvestro’s frightening crash, planking, and cold weather and rain. Not to minimize her injuries, but Simona’s crash could have ended much worse . I’m a bit concerned with how easily that car appeared to lift off the ground. Hopefully the 2012 car will improve in this area.

The charge that the series’ drivers are personalityless sponsor-plugging automatons doesn’t survive a cursory look at Thursday’s Twitter feeds and photos of their plankings.

Most relevant to the on-track action has been the cold and rain. Drastically shortened practice time will have a big impact on what happens during qualifying (scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, though rain threatens those days, too).

In a display of positivity, I’ll predict safe entry into the field for Power, Castroneves, Briscoe, Franchitti, Dixon, Tagliani, Rahal, Bell, Carpenter, M. Andretti, Hunter-Reay, Wilson, Tracy, Kanaan, Meira, Servia, Hildebrand, and Scheckter. Mostly safe choices there, but I think I’ll add Conway. He’s struggled lately and certainly many will attribute his slowness to last year’s horrific crash. That, however, runs counter to his steel-cold demeanor. Many of the less-sure entries are certainly deserving and I’ll be disappointed if any of them aren’t on the grid: Previous winners Rice and Wheldon, instantly fast 2010 qualifier Junquiera, top-5 finisher Lloyd, Formula 1- and NASCAR refugee Speed, veteran Hamilton, and young standout Matos, among others. Qualifying and racing with her injuries would make a great storyline for race day if Simona is able.

I plan on watching Saturday's Fast Nine session and the last hour or so of Sunday's Bump Day-sure to be the most dramatic racing event of the season.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

They Ought to March Two by Two, Two by Two

As reported in the media, many of the Izod Indycar Series drivers are opposed to the use of double-file restarts in the Indy 500. This would be a mistake.

Skepticism about the double-file restart centers on its interfering with the purity of sport of racing or being a hokey gimmick better suited to stock cars and Saturday night short-track racing. Concerns about safety have also been aired, with many drivers concerned that double-file restarts will result in shattered cars, delayed races, or worse.

Safety concerns, while not without merit, should not be the biggest issue. In three of four races this year, the field was able to execute repeated double-file restarts without incident (in the fourth, they don’t appear to have seriously attempted to go side-by-side). I should think that, on a large oval like Indianapolis with more space and fewer turns, lining up to come out of turn 4 two abreast wouldn’t be a problem. Questions about the sport’s purity come into play because, in the current system, the leader’s hard-won advantage is maintained during caution periods when the cars he has lapped remain between him and his closest competitors. Sending lapped cars behind all of the leaders, as in a double-file restart, nullifies that advantage. Which is true. However, when lined up for a double-file restart, the field is in the correct running order: The leader is 1st on the track, 2nd place is alongside him or her, 3rd place slots in immediately behind the leader, and so on. No positions have been altered or moved. According to the scoreboard, no change has been made and results are the same.

Double-file restarts are absolutely a NASCAR-influenced gimmick. A NASCAR-influenced gimmick that has proven successful at its goal: Increase interest by giving fans more exciting racing moments. With barely measurable TV ratings, poor attendance, and general disinterest or lack of knowledge, the Izod Indycar Series could stand to use some gimmicks, especially those that don’t impact safety or the purity of the sport. Personally, I find the overtake button to be more of a gimmick than the restart procedure, and I’ve heard little (if any) criticism of it.

On the other hand, I’m not a race car driver and I might have something dead wrong in my reasoning. If so, I’d like to hear it.