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.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Who? She's Going Where?

Car trouble on my home from the race meant that I've had to spend the last two evenings crawling on my garage floor looking up into a rain of dirt, rust, and gasoline. Most of it is out of my eyes now. Oh, and the neighbors have a decaying elephant or something on their back patio, which adds a certain pungence to the night air. Come to think of it, maybe those gasoline vapors aren't so bad...
Anyway, that was time that couldn't be spent reading about the race, rewatching the race, blogging about the race, reminiscing about the race, sorting photos of the race, boring family members with details of the race, accomplishing work around the house, or spending time with the wife and kids.

To make amends, I’ll just pick a topic of recent interest and jump in.

Word on the street is that Danica Patrick is on her way to NASCAR (talk about the Galactic Empire…). Reactions, as might be expected, run from “good riddance, she’s an awful driver who torments America with exploitative lowest common denominator commercials and hates puppies” to “Indycar is over! It will never recover from losing the only star it’s ever had and we might as well shut the lights out now!!!”

While all speculation, it sounds as if she hasn’t yet made a decision. Those whose minds lead them to shadowy corners will note that ESPN (who "broke" the "story") has an interest in promoting a new superstar coming to a property they broadcast a couple dozen times a year. Otherwise, Danica is just another star in another sport that might get a mention on SportsCenter.

My opinion is that she’s headed for stock cars next year. Aside from the Indy 500, I’ve heard nothing from her about love for the sport, appreciation of heritage, building for future seasons, or trying out the 2012 cars. Without an apparent interest and a fan backlash in progress (Bertrand Baguette received as big a cheer for taking the lead from her as she did taking the lead herself), I would speculate that she’ll take her services to NASCAR’s GoDaddy-green fields and cash the checks.

Her departure would be a loss to Indycar. First, GoDaddy would presumably not return to the Indycar series. Insufferable commercials aside, any sponsor is a good sponsor. When times are tough and your series is nigh invisible, anyone who wants to write you a check so you can continue to pursue your chosen profession should be welcomed.
Second, she’s a mid-to-upper level driver running for the organization that is still the third best team in the paddock. In 2009 she finished best-in-class, scoring more points than any other non-Penske/non-Ganassi team. She also had two second place finishes last season and is always a contender at Indy, leading a number of laps late this year.
More importantly (sadly) is that she has become the most (only?) recognizable name to a series that runs under the layman’s radar. I suspect that few outside of the hardcore fan base gave much thought to the Indy 500 in the years prior to her breakthrough 2005 year. She is still probably the only recognizable name in the series-in fact, I don't doubt that she has more name recognition than "Indy car racing." Resentment of her off-track celebrity is understandable, but she is still the most powerful marketing weapon the series has. She attracts the most attention and, despite Izod's best efforts, could probably do more to sell tickets than anyone else. Would it take more than a few "Danica Patick is coming to town" billboards or local news reports to bump ticket sales? Should the series rely on a single driver for attracting fans? Of course not. If a single driver, however, can attract huge numbers of fans, the series should absolutely use her to do so. Not using her or choosing a less effective marketing tool would have the same result: lower ticket sales, lower TV ratings, and fewer fans.

Danica Patrick is neither my favorite nor my least favorite driver, but I hope she stays in Indycar.