Sunday, September 16, 2012

Most Things Right, One BIG Thing Wrong

... And with that, the 2012 Indycar season is over. It's a bit strange to have it come so early in the year, but I guess I can understand why. It will make the off-season seem extra long, however.

I'll start with the positives. Congratulations to Ryan Hunter-Reay for winning the championship by driving his heart out and doing exactly what he needed to do. It makes me proud to say I was wrong about picking Power to win. Speaking of whom, nobody will fault his drive, determination, and sportsmanship. It's not that I ever disliked him, but after his conduct in this race and speaking to him at a Milwaukee autograph session in June, it's getting easier and easier to cheer for him.
The race was great. Lots of competition, several leaders, and 500 miles of varying strategies and fortunes waxing and waning. I miss 500-mile races. I don't know that I want a whole season of them, but the distance adds a lot.

Further, I've been watching various forms of racing for more than 20 years. For most of those years, Bob Jenkins was THE Voice of Racing. He is knowledgeable, passionate, enthusiastic, and had the perfect announcer's voice-one that doesn't sound like he's working hard or straining when describing the action. After the ESPN Ride-Along Program commercials in 1997, my favorite Jenkins moment might be spotting him in the stands at a midget race in Indianapolis in about 2001. It's good to see people like him taking in a race like the rest of us.

HOWEVER. I have to talk about something else that happened in the race. The red flag that was shown when a car wrecked with only a few laps remaining. I am adamantly, vehemently opposed to this practice (as my angry, profane Twitter comments probably indicated...). It didn't even exist in top-level professional racing until May 1998, when NASCAR threw the red after a late caution at Richmond. Before that moment, nobody realized or cared that they 'deserved' or were 'owed' a green flag finish-or that one would even make the race better or more memorable. It's a fact of racing life-the action continues and laps count down until the total distance is reached. Altering that creates an artificial, contrived situation that is unnecessary and undesired for the creation of drama. Is this a sport, or is it entertainment? I thought it was a sport-one governed by consistent rules and regulations with an outcome determined by the actions of the competitors.
Strategists on the pit boxes and fans know that a very late caution could possibly bring an effective premature end to the race. That's part of the drama and the excitement. Races sometimes end under yellow. That's racing. Get used to it. I have more to say and more to analyze about this point, but I think I'll save it for later. Suffice to say that I'm disappointed. Unlike many other types, I don't like to make empty threats every time I see a race that isn't a barn-burner. I watched through the dull, dark days of 2009. 2012 is a whole different animal. Most races have been exciting and interesting. But I told others that, if Indycar started throwing red flags or doing Green-White-Checker finishes, I was done. I would quit watching. And now they've done it. I have a long off-season to think about it, but my principles have been offended. I'm not sure if Indycar leadership cares about my own little opinion, my own little voice, or the pittance I spend on race-going, but part of me says that quitting is the right thing to do. It's a shame to have ended an otherwise sublime race in such a way...

More to come. Feel free to try to talk me off the ledge,

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Back. Again.

Yeah, well... That didn't go so well. You may have noticed that this blog hasn't been updated since before Indianapolis (on a 500-centered calendar, that means "half a season ago"). Rather than make excuses and belabor the point any further, I'll just ask you to stay tuned in. Please. This time I mean it. I hope to make this an interesting place to visit over the off-season, too.
No one is safe from making a championship prediction, so I'll go ahead and get that bit out of the way. The choices are:
Will Power-aka, "The Safe Choice". Straight up, head-to-head, speed-wise on a road course, he's untouchable. Three consecutive wins in the spring had this race fan worried that Indianapolis would be a dull Will Power runaway. If speed were all that mattered, he'd be a two-time champ right now. Mistakes by his crew, however, cost him precious finishing positions at several races in 2010 and 2011, leading to narrow point deficits at the ends of those seasons. He has a better 500-mile race record, though his lack of top-5s in that category are probably due to crashes and problems on pit road.
Ryan Hunter-Reay - aka, "The Feel-Good, All-American Underdog Choice". The guy who's been through the American Open-Wheel Driver Wringer, he's showed up and WON everything he's ever driven, yet couldn't get anyone to hire him for more than a year at a time until Michael Andretti took the chance on him in 2010. His highest-profile setback this year came at Sonoma, where a good run was spoiled by an overeager competitor. Mechanical problems at Indianapolis (where he qualified on the front row) and Mid-Ohio can also be blamed for his 2nd place standing going into Fontana. His 500-mile race record isn't as good, but luck has been harder on him. He failed to qualify his sub-par Andretti entry in 2011 and instead raced the Foyt entry Bruno Junquiera got in the field, only to spend the day mired mid-pack after limited practice. In 2010, the Izod poster boy was running well until he ran out of fuel and made the highlight reels as Mike Conway's ramp.
My gut is telling me that Will Power will take the championship. There. He's my pick, no qualifiers or conditions.
While I'm making predictions, Helio Castroneves is the first name that comes to mind for picking a race winner. One great thing about a 500-mile race, however, is that it's long enough for differing strategies to play out and to get some unusual faces up front (See: Indy 500 podiums in 2011, 2010, and 2009). I'd like to see a guy who's run well all season without a win get a turn in victory lane-someone like Simon Pagenaud or Oriol Servia.
More news is rolling in and I hope to have more comments coming. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It's May!

Wow, has it been almost a month between posts? Well, I plan to improve on that. I have a few ventures going that should contribute several different ways towards improving my post rate.
In the meantime, let's take a look at the good news: The next time an Indycar turns a wheel in anger, it will be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We're less than two weeks from the start of practice, less than three from Pole Day, and in 24 days I'll be packing up my stopwatch and pointing the Flat Into One Flyer south to see friends, watch a race, and be part of racing's biggest, oldest, and most famous event.

Stay tuned, keep reading, there's more to come!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Racing Pollyanna

Apparently, I'm an incurable optimist. I suspect you wouldn't think so if we met, but I'm always searching for the upside in every situation. I don't know how this happened. It's the sort of thing that makes people nauseous. I'm guessing it's a coping mechanism. Why work hard at something if you're certain it's going to end in failure?
It's been a good trait, I think, to have as a race fan. Even if it has created some delusions.
I believed well into 2004 that Champ Car represented the future of American open wheel racing. It took until 2009 to realize that sports car racing just wasn't going anywhere.

As I've spent the last few years thinking about Indycar and its future, I've developed other hopeful, forward-looking thoughts.
Dallara was the right choice to build the 2012 car, even though I proclaimed the DeltaWing concept to be the last, best hope for Indycar.
The series will be stronger without Danica Patrick. (Even though I once wrote something like the opposite of that statement on this blog.)
The Lotus engine will be the equal of the Chevrolets and Hondas by mid-season.
Last October's events will bring the series, drivers, and fans together and make all of us stronger and raise the profile and image of Indycar in the public eye.
June's Milwaukee Indyfest will rile a now-dormant race fan hotspot and become a tradition all over again.
Coverage on NBCSNCNSN-er, NBC Sports, will pull in and keep new fans who won't be confused by the name or location of "Vs" any more. It will even spur ABC to improve its coverage.
Channel surfers and casual viewers will be pulled into said broadcasts, and be made fans for life.

Am I right? Wrong? Dangerously misguided? And please share what about the future of Indycar you're optimistic about.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Race Indycar Needed

Well, who would have thought that? General Internet Buzz has it that today's Izod Indycar series race at Alabama's Barber Motorsport Park was a FANTASTIC show. Based on the broadcast I saw, I'm going to agree. I think that race had everything one could want.

If St. Petersburg was the race Indycar needed after Las Vegas and this off-season, Barber is the race Indycar needs for the future.

A few points:

1. Near to my heart-because it's what I last wrote about-is Lotus' performance. Sebastian Bourdais whipped his Lotus-powered Dragon Racing Dallara to a hard-earned 9th place finish. Oriol Servia climbed from 26th (DFL) to 13th, on the lead lap. In fact, all but one of the Lotii were classified as "Running" at the conclusion of the race. Only Alex Tagliani's car failed to finish, but it was embarrassingly the first lap, and I'm not sure Lotus was pleased with him saying the engine blew up in interviews... In contrast, the best Lotus at St. Petersburg finished 15th, one lap down. Three more didn't finish the race. The NBCSN crew reported that Lotus will actually be skipping this week's Indianapolis test because of a lack of engines and spares. I understand their concern, but skipping that test sounds like a very, very bad idea.

2. Speaking of the NBCSN crew, they were great. The whole broadcast was great, especially when compared to ABC's last week. If Townsend Bell can't be driving race cars, at least he can be telling us about them. Jon Beekhuis' technical pieces were excellent. I have a hard time criticizing Bob Jenkins' gaffes, since he's been making them for 20+ years, but he tested me this afternoon. After defending him in a conversation Saturday, it seemed that Bob went on to confuse every blue-and-red car in the field, mispronounce names, cut names short, etc. Maybe he's rusty, or maybe he needs to study the Spotter's Guide, but I hope the guy who embodies "Racing Announcer" for me comes up better over the next few races. Overall, however, the crew showed how it was done. Hint: ABC, don't show us the leader all by his lonesome when there is dicing and passing for position back in the field.

3. Will Power won on a road course-but not from the pole, and not by dominating. I am slightly surprised by this. It should frighten the rest of the field.

4. I thought Barber, as a narrow motorcycle track, was impossible to pass on. Or so went conventional wisdom. Most laps looked like someone was challenging someone else for position, to the point where I started to wonder what the leaders looked like... What struck me most, however, was how many (all) of the passes were "Real"-none were caused by bumps between cars, none were the artificial results of underpowered engines and pack racing, etc, just real driver skill getting the job done.

More to come soon. What do you think the most promising part of the 2012 season is so far?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lotus Blossoms

Among the stories from last weekend's season opener at St. Petersburg was the performance of the engines from the three manufacturers. Lotus' story is probably most interesting, with their relative tardiness and the drama behind Dragon's engine supply issues. Contrary to many predictions, not one of the Lotus engines wound up scattered on the Florida asphalt. That's not to say they didn't have their share of issues. I've always found Lotus' participation as an engine builder to be curious. Lotus is not historically known as an engine company, unlike both Chevrolet and Honda. In fact, Lotus does not build any of the engines in its road cars-they all come off-the-shelf from another supplier. So what marketing advantage does it gain as an Indycar engine producer?

Anyway, based on my own pure speculation, observation by Television, and comments by actual professional racing journalists, here are some notes about the Lotus-powered cars:
It might not be surprising to not see any engine failures. Lotus may have felt most comfortable (especially as the sure backmarker) simply de-tuning the engines to a guaranteed safe level to prevent the embarrassment of a 'blowed motor' live on TV during the season opener.

It was reported that the cars with Lotus power were a few mph slower than the rest of the field at the end of the longest straightaway. Elsewhere, it was mentioned that they were unable to reach their 12,000 rpm redline thanks to a software problem. I would think this is an issue that would be quickly resolved.

I'll also speculate that Barber's smooth surface will be kinder to electrical systems than the very bumpy streets of St. Petersburg.

I'm not saying to expect a Lotus victory come Sunday, but I'll be looking for them to be performing notably better.

Until next time,

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hello, 2012!!!

Hello everyone, and welcome to the 2012 Izod Indycar Series! I'm very excited that the season is underway. First and foremost, I think moving forward helps with the healing process. I still get very emotional thinking about Dan Wheldon and that day last October, but with real competition and real storylines, I feel like actual progress and improvement can be made.
Obviously the next biggest news item are the 2012 Dallaras and the three different engines powering them. With a number of teething problems made painfully public, skepticisim for both car and engine ran high. It looks, however, that much of that was unfounded. Any time entirely new systems are introduced, problems can be expected. I don't think the mechanical attrition rate was unreasonable. Even the engines seem well-matched. Latecomer Lotus' were a bit behind, but Sebastian Bourdais had his running well inside the top 10 late in the race.
Race control looks to have improved-the start and restarts were all very clean, and car-to-car incidents were apparently very rare. (Though I wonder how much of that is drivers unsure of how much abuse the new cars can take?)
While veterans dominated the podium, some of the off-season's new hires proved to be good investments. First up was 4th place finisher James Hinchcliffe. A preseason no-brainer for the car, Hinch backed up his antics with a 4th place run. Simon Pagenaud no doubt wonders why he's been running sports cars for the past few years while Sam Schmidt's team looks stronger and stronger all the time. Josef NEwgarden looked good, and can probably be very happy with his 11th place finish for a team not accustomed to running road courses. I don't know that I saw Rubens Barrichello on TV all day, but the standings show that he finished 2 laps down. This blogger was very skeptical of the Mike Conway/Foyt combination, but I think I was wrong. Their mechanical problems belied a great run.
On the other hand, 2011 powerhouses will Power, Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal, and Oriol Servia were mired mid-pack. Power and Franchitti ran on a pit strategy that I had worked out as being an ideal arrangement. I was wrong. Power salvaged 7th while Franchitti wound up a very uncharacteristic 13th. Rahal finished 12th, behind teammate Charlie Kimball, and Servia might have his Lotus engine to blame for his 16th place finish.
If you picked up on my undertone, you'd have figured out that I'm no fan of ABC's coverage. While the Vegas segment of the pre-race show was emotional, the race coverage left a lot to be desired. ABC seemed intent on only following the leader while battles raged back in the pack, on giving out zero information about pit strategy, and on relaying nothing about the cars that dropped out. JR Hildebrand and Sebastian Bourdais both were running in the top 10 late in the race, only to disappear without explanation. I really wish I had a computer set up to watch live timing and scoring data on... I guess all we can do is beg ABC to do a better job. I think the series is better off with bad coverage there than any coverage on an obscure cable channel, but all-around poor coverage does no one any good. St. Petersburg wasn't the only victim-I watched last year's 500 the evening after attending the actual race, and could scarcely believe they were the same event.
I guess I don't have a lot of comments today, but am happy we got a good (if not great) race with no major drama to kick off the 2012 season and move everything forward. I believe 2012 is an "End of the Beginning" kind of year and will prove to be pivotal in the history of the sport. Until next time,

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Are You Ready?

Are you ready? Ready for American Open Wheel Racing's new era? This Friday will see the opening practice session for the 2012 Indycar season. When the first car takes to the streets of St. Petersburg, we will be seeing the biggest, boldest step forward for the series since 2008's merger. Not only will 2011 and its joys and heartaches be put behind us, the future of open-wheel will be laid out before us. One gets the impression that it's time for the series to step into its own. Gone is Danica Patrick's walking publicity machine. Gone is the visually and aurally offensive 2003 Dallara/V8 package. Gone is an officiating regime that angered, baffled, and robbed the series of badly-needed credibility.
Instead, our regular cast of characters are here to shine on their own considerable merits, joined by old friends and a popular and respected Formula 1 veteran. They'll be piloting all-new Dallara DW12 race cars boasting the latest advances in safety, performance, and styling; each one powered by an all-new turbocharged 2.2 liter engine built by one of a trio of invested manufacturers. The rule book is new and will be wielded by another respected veteran who promises a new and fresh approach to the officiating job.
There are a lot of questions that remain-how well will the DW12 race? How equal are the different manufacturer's engines? How durable are these new car/engine combinations? Will the drivers adapt successfully? Will Beaux Barfield live up to his expectations? These are interesting questions, and make for the most highly anticipated season opener since... well, I'm not sure. I'm looking forward to a great season and hope you are, too.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Let's Get Rolling Here

With activity in the Indycar world picking up and the official start of the 2012 racing season with the 24 Hours of Daytona, I intend to pick up the pace here and start posting regularly. I promise. No, really, I mean it.

First off, Robin Miller's weekly fan-rant column went up last week, and was full of the usual whining and pining. BUT, he did hint at something interesting regarding my last post's subject. According to Mr. Miller, Milwaukee is sure to be back on the schedule next June, but with a surprise. The only open weekend in June happens to fall on Father's Day again, which is one of the reasons attendance was so poor in 2011. (I went because "going to an Indycar race" is a pretty good Father's Day gift.) HOWEVER, the race could be run Saturday night, or even on Saturday afternoon, and hopefully in conjunction with the USAC open-wheelers Indycar management supposedly wants to court. I say right on. If I have a concern, it's that such a plan would make for 3 oval night races in 3 weeks in June. It looks like there could be a hole in the schedule in September, which I'd be all for, too. The weather is still pretty nice then.

In other news, many teams have been testing at Sebring, including some in full-dress livery. Again, has the photos. I can't see what the problem with the DW12's aesthetics is. This is a cool-looking car, especially in the Penske schemes. I like that it's incorporated all the little fins and splitters and winglets that are in vogue on modern LeMans sportscars. The 2003-2011 Dallara looks even more ungainly, awkward, and dated next to it.

Quick post for today, but I'll be back. Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 23, 2012

See! I'm Still here!

Wow, uh, yeah, I'm back... I know I promised to update more frequently, but that hasn't been happening. I'm very sorry, but things will change. It's been a tumultuous past few months. BUT, Wisconsin's typically frigid winter, well, hasn't been. There are some interesting irons in the fire here, and as I've been promising since this blog's very first post, some very exciting news is coming. I swear.

In the meantime, a lot has happened in the world of Indycar. Newman-Haas closed, Dragon re-opened, Milwaukee might be back on the schedule, the DW12 might not be a turd on the ovals after all, Lotus got some engines in cars, Oriol Servia and Sebastian Bourdais have jobs, Brian Barnhart doesn't, and so on. Oh, and it seems there might actually be too many entrants for the number of available engines. Is this a problem? Definitely. But I'm going to throw out there that I'd rather have more entrants than engines than the other way around.

I'll have plenty to say about all these events (and more) in the coming weeks, but for now I'll focus on one subject. It would be great if the rumors of Milwaukee's return to the schedule are true.
1. The 2012 schedule, at 15 races, is on the light side.
2. The 2012 schedule is light on oval races. Indy, Texas, Iowa, and Fontana. I'm not an oval purist, but the right oval tracks have a place on the schedule and are (allegedly) popular with the fans. Now, if only every fan who claimed to want more oval races would actually go to them, maybe we wouldn't have these problems.
3. Milwaukee produces great Indycar races. I attended twice, in 2009 and 2011. The series was at a low point in 2009, when drivers would actually apologize for boring events. Still, there was a real, live, actual, on-track pass for the lead at Milwaukee that year and it was interesting start to finish. The 2011 race was a great one, with close competition, leaders throwing it away, pit road insanity, incompetent officiating (oh, wait, that was every race in 2011), and the best, fastest driver showing the field how it's done.
4. It's in a large metropolitan area FULL of racing enthusiasts. It becomes a huge metro area when Chicago is factored in.
5. Summer in Wisconsin is a good time and place to spend an afternoon outdoors.
6. Beer. Brats. And Beer.
7. The history. This track is older than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The list of winners is about as storied, too, plus 50+ years of stock car races, too.
8. Finally, selfishly, it's close to home. I think it's actually a shorter drive to the Mile than to my workplace, which gives me another chance to share my impressions of a real, live Indycar race with you.

More coming soon, thanks for reading!