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,