Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cream of the Crop, 2014 (And A Fontana Wrap)

So here we are, at the end of another IndyCar season. I have to say, I expect to wake up tomorrow and see some frost on the ground, since it's getting to that time of year.

Wait? You mean to tell me the season ended on August 30? It's only September? And the next race is seven months away? Darn it! Well, at least that means you get to see me pontificate about a bunch of stuff between now and then.

But seriously. While I'm disappointed to see the season end now and dread the long off-season ahead, it is what it is...at least this year. Look, like or not, IndyCar falls off of most people's radars by now. Football is king, even more so than a generation ago when the series stretched into November. Obviously, going against football (and the chase) isn't seen as a profitable venture to the powers-that-be. Now, some might say "well, NASCAR does it!"

Well of course they do, because they are a multi-billion dollar entity that is just below football in terms of popularity. And while I think they are mostly just a huge paper tiger (maybe I'll delve into that someday), they have money, resources and influence to call the shots the way they want to. IndyCar does not. So while I know that the Boston Consulting Group is the butt of a lot of jokes (and deservedly so), I think they got this one right. Until the series consistently draws over a million viewers a race, getting stomped on football weekends isn't smart.

My hope -- HOPE -- is that over the course of the next several years the series can find good business partners who will be willing to put together an 8-9 month schedule that features 20-plus races on a national TV network. Then maybe we can think about taking on some of the big boys.

As a Cubs fan, I live by the mantra "It's going to happen!" (and it is, the tsunami is coming), and I believe that in IndyCar as well.

So anyway, what a night we had on Saturday! We crowned a new champion, saw a popular winner and gave the series the kind of sendoff for the year it deserves. So while I wrapped up the bottom half of the standings already, I'll cover the top half here, as well as sprinkle in some good cheer about Fontana.

Champion: Will Power (671 points). Talk about it's going to happen! After watching WP cough up a championship over each of the last couple of years, he finally closed the deal, finishing the season with three wins and four poles. Go back a couple of months when he was doing something boneheaded every weekend, and I didn't think it was going to happen this year, either. But he kept his head over the last few events -- despite things not always going his way -- and with a new found confidence on ovals, looks like he's set up to maybe go on a run over the next several seasons. Some pro athletes are just born winners, and some have to figure it out as they go along...but once they do, they become scary good. Power fits into that latter category, and at age 33 he's poised to take his career to a higher place.

Runner-up: Helio Castroneves (609 points). Talk about a little deja vu. Once again, Helio gets on the precipice of winning his first title and he gets turned away. I've always considered Helio one of the best closers in the business, but this is one that he can't seem to seal the deal. But then again, you don't deserve it when you finish the season P12, P19, P11, P18 and P14 -- which includes a penalty for a pit road violation. Like last year Castroneves seems as motivated as ever to get it done, but you wonder what it's going to take to finally get him that title that has eluded him his entire career. Then again, which carries more weight, an IndyCar title or four Indy 500 wins? I think he will get number four, which I believe he could live with. I know I could!

3rd: Scott Dixon (604 points). With a runner-up finish at Fontana and an amazing run to close out the season, Dixon (and Target Chip Ganassi Racing) showed that they have fixed whatever was wrong through the first half of the season. From Pocono on, he threw up two wins, three total podiums and seven Top 5 finishes in the final eight races. With that he locked in a Top 3 finish in the points for the eighth straight season.

People, the man is now certified as a legend in the making. His win at Sonoma was the 34th of his career, tying him with Bobby Unser for fifth all-time. The only people that sit in front of him are AJ Foyt (67), Mario Andretti (52), Michael Andretti (42) and Al Unser (39). That's it. I think it took a lot of people a long time to appreciate his talents (yes, I'm very much in that group), but 20 years from now those of us who got to see him race will be happy to have had the opportunity.

4th: Juan Pablo Montoya (586 points). I'm going to say it again...I dig this guy (and given he won Most Popular Driver, others do too). Never thought I would, but I do. His fourth-place finish Saturday night gave him Top 5 finishes in all of the oval races except for Iowa, and was his seventh Top 5 of the year. If JPM could've done better than a P21 at Long Beach and P18 and P19 on the Toronto weekend, he's in the championship equation. JPM is one of those guys that when he is on the track you can't help but watch him a lot. He's just crazy, crazy good, and proved that he wasn't just back in IndyCar for giggles. Even at 38, the dude still has a lot left in the tank.

5th: Simon Pagenaud (565 points). Simon came into Fontana hoping that if things went well he could steal the title, but instead he crashed in testing and finished 20th in the race with an ill-handling car. I feel like Simon is where Power was a couple of years ago -- an absolute threat to win on any twisty on the planet, but just not as skilled on ovals as he needs to be, especially now that double points are at stake. He's good on ovals, but not great, and it's getting to that next level that will give him a shot at the Astor Cup. Still, he's done a fantastic job with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports the last two years, and if he moves to Andretti Autosport as expected in 2015, that next level might be waiting.

6th: Ryan Hunter-Reay (563 points). For the second straight year, RHR proved how absolutely much things need to go your way to win a championship. A win at Indy made his career, of course, and he also finished first at Barber and Iowa -- the latter one of the best moments of  2014 -- but he also had a dreadful weekend in Detroit (where he crashed twice) and at Milwaukee a suspension problem when he was moving up through the field all but wrecked his championship hopes, just as some bad luck hit him in 2013. He will win another title someday, so long as his luck turns for the better!

7th: Tony Kanaan (544 points). In my Milwaukee wrap-up I made mention of how cool it would be if TK could wrap up the season with a win at Fontana, and he did just that. And yes, it was cool. We just saw it coming, didn't we? Pocono looked to be a lock until he had to pit for fuel, he dominated at Iowa until RHR passed him at the end, posted two podiums at Toronto and finished third at Milwaukee. What's so incredible to believe is that outside of his win at Indy in 2013, you have to go back to Iowa in 2010 to his last victory. This one was a while in coming. Since 2009, TK has only finished in the top 5 in points once, does he have one more run in him in 2015?

8th: Ed Carpenter/Mike Conway (514 points). I know what you are saying..."wait a minute, wasn't Carlos Munoz eighth in points?" Yes he was, but I thought it wouldn't give these two guys the justice they deserved if I had put them 22nd and 23rd in points, which was where they respectively finished. Splitting the duties between the ovals (Ed) and the twisties (Mike), the duo posted three wins -- Texas for Carpenter, Long Beach and Toronto 2 for Conway -- and Carpenter also capture the pole at Indy for the second straight year. In my season preview I facetiously picked these two to combine for the title, but in the end they did a heckuva job. I hope Conway comes back to the combined ECR/SFHR team, because with those two and Josef Newgarden joining in on the action, they might be really, really good.

8th: Carlos Munoz (483 points). OK, here's where I give props to the true 8th-place finisher, and our series Rookie of the Year. Munoz posted three podiums and once again was impressive at Indy, where he finished fourth. I love watching the guy drive at Indy, he has a style all his own that will probably cash in for him someday. Like most young drivers, he had his ups and downs during the season, and consistency (he also had four finishes of P22 or worse) was not his friend. Still, he's only 22 and in the new era of IndyCar this kind of stuff takes time. Still, 22 races into his career and I'm sure Michael Andretti is very, very happy with what he has in this guy.

9th: Marco Andretti (463 points). In the same vein as what I posted yesterday about Graham Rahal, you just wonder when (or if) Marco is ever going to have the breakout season everyone hopes he might. But after nine years and close to 150 races, I think this is who he is. And that's not a bad thing because being one of the 8-10 best drivers in the IndyCar series is nothing to look down at. Still, we expect more. I actually thought Marco raced well at times this year, but he had some awful results in qualifying and had to dig himself out of some holes that were at times probably a bit too deep. I do think he's going to win Indy someday -- he gets closer every year -- and is still only 27 years old, and maybe growing and maturing some more might help. In the end, I think Marco is his own worst enemy, he is too hard on himself at times and more than anything I think that is what gets in his way a lot.

10th: Sebastien Bourdais (461 points). It was good to finally see Seabass get his first win (at Toronto 1) and capture two poles. Having not been a Champ Car fan (I know, the horror!) I have a harder time putting Seb's career into perspective, but it seems like he gets more and more comfortable in IndyCar with each passing race, and I don't think we have seen his best just because he's mostly run on single-car teams. Yeah, I know he has had Sebastian Saavedra the last two years, but is he really a teammate or just a guy who happens to be on your team? (Yes those are two different things) Still, he surprised the heck out of me with his seventh-place finish at Indy -- I wondered if he would ever finish in the Top 10 -- and found a little more footing on the road/street courses as the season went on. I don't know if he will ever get good enough on ovals to move up the classification, but he's an asset to the series.

So there you have it! If you go back to my predictions post from earlier in the year, I wasn't as good with my prognostications as I had been in the past. Still, I think I got one thing right on this prediction, and I quote:

"I dunno, but something tells me this could be a huge season for IndyCar."

I nailed it! It was a great season, and I think 2015 will be even better.


Final Standings: 11-21

As a wrapup to the the season, I'm posting my thoughts on the seasons of the drivers who finished the season in points positions eleven through twenty-one. I'm sure your first thought is...wait, didn't a total of 23 drivers compete on a (mostly full-time basis this year? Yes, they did, but I did some moving around, and when positions one through ten are posted later this week you will get the gist.

11th: Ryan Briscoe (461 points). After spending 2013 as a racing nomad, Briscoe went back to his IndyCar roots when he signed with Target Chip Ganassi Racing as one of the Ganassi B cars. Like the other drivers on his team, Briscoe's results were mixed this year, but like the rest of his team he got better as the year went on. The guy is a Top 10 machine and will win a pole and/or a race when everything goes right. I expect him to be higher up this list next year.

12th: James Hinchcliffe (465 points). Let's call a spade a spade (and this hurts given he's my favorite driver), but Hinch's season was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end. Between crashes, mechanical issues and other circumstances beyond his control, Hinch had one podium and six finishes P18 or worse. A P5 at Fontana probably gave him something positive to take into the off-season, but I'm guessing he is glad to have 2014 in his rear-view.

13th: Josef Newgarden (406 points). From Pocono on, I thought Josef's season (and career) took a huge upturn. I'm not sure what clicked that caused such a drastic change, but he qualified better and he definitely raced better. How much better? He had five Top 10 finishes in his last eight races compared to nine Top 10 finishes in his previous 2 1/2 seasons. With Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing combining forces with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2015, he may be on the verge of some next-level stuff.

14th: Charlie Kimball (402 points). After four years I'm still not able to make up my mind about Charlie. Is he a front-runner (nine Top 10 finishes and advanced more positions on race day than any other driver this season) or a mid-packer (six finishes of P17 or worse)? He has a great ride, great equipment and full funding with a top-tier team but has never finished better than ninth in the standings. But that is probably more an indication of the competition level in the series as opposed to an indictment on his abilities as a driver.

15th: Justin Wilson (395 points). Man, oh man, do I wish this guy would someday get a chance with Penske, Ganassi or Andretti, because when you can drag Dale Coyne Racing equipment to the kinds of finishes he has over the years, you are one hell of a driver. (Editor's note: Not a slam on DCR at all, but they have to work really, really hard to get anywhere.) Lots of things went right for Justin when he finished P6 in the standings last year, but that good fortune didn't follow him into 2014.

16th: Mikhail Aleshin (372 points). First of all, best wishes to Mikhail after his crash at Fontana on Friday night. That was pure nasty, and I'm glad his injuries are the kind that get better and that he will be back on the grid next season. Overall, for a guy who had to clear as many hurdles as he did this season: first time in America, learning tracks, racing on ovals for the first time -- I thought he handled himself very well. He's a tad bit on the aggressive side, but I think that's what makes him endearing to many. We'll see what Year 2 has in store for the first Russian to ever race in IndyCar.

And while I'm on that tip...hats off again to everyone who designed, tested (RIP Dan Wheldon) and continue to improve the safety of the DW12. For all the crap that people give that car, it provides the best racing on the planet and drivers know that they are as safe as possible when they strap into one.

Look, racing is still a dangerous game, and American open wheel racing is at the top of that list in terms of danger. The best thing a series and the engineers can do is be proactive in upgrading and improving the safety of the cars, and I think Dallara does that very well.

And while I'm at it, hats off to the Holmatro Safety crew. They are the best in the business, hands down. I'm sure when a driver is involved in an incident it's a comforting thing to see these guys leaning down into the cockpit to help.

17th: Jack Hawksworth (366 points). The young man from England certainly had his ups and downs (crashing at Indy and then crashing and missing the Pocono racing being the low points) but overall it was a promising season for someone driving for probably the most underfunded team. Lots was made -- plenty of it negative -- when Bryan Herta picked Hawksworth for the seat over the winter, but I feel like in the end he proved he deserved it. And given what we now know the lengths he and his family have gone and sacrificed to get him into that seat, my respect level for the Hawk is pretty high.

18th: Takuma Sato (350 points). We all know Taku is fast (he had two more poles this season) but he also tears up a LOT of equipment. He's also finished P15 or worse in 20 of his last 28 races. Great guy, love his passion and I love his driving when he has it going, but in the end, Larry Foyt has to decide whether the highs are worth all of the lows. My guess here is sooner or later he decides it isn't.

19th: Graham Rahal (345 points). When we heard two years ago that Graham was moving to his dad's team, and then last year was getting the National Guard sponsorship, the consensus was that he was out of excuses. The question becomes, what do we say now? P18 and P19 in the standings, with the money and engineering resources at his disposal, doesn't cut it. And with the Guard pulling out of racing altogether, I just don't know what to say. I think for a lot of reasons everyone wants to see Graham succeed, but I don't think it's going to happen. Sure he's fast at times and does run well, but so does everyone else in the series. It's a result-oriented business, and this is the second straight year he has regressed.

20th: Carlos Huertas (314 points). Well, Carlos will always have Houston 1 I guess. Other than that, what else do you say? An eighth at Detroit 1 and an 10th at Long Beach were the other high-water marks for Carlos and it's obvious after Fontana that he officially doesn't like ovals, so I'm wondering if we will see him back next year.

21st: Sebastian Saavedra (291 points). I like Saavedra, I really do. He's what a racer driver should be, he's good looking, has incredible hair and is outgoing and fun to be around. I think despite the fact he gets in their way a lot on the track, the other drivers in the paddock like him a lot. He has brief flashes of great things, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to handle prosperity well because every time it looks like he's catching a break, something goes horribly wrong. He did win the pole at the GP of Indy, and led laps at Long Beach and Bama for the first time in his career, but other than that he drove around in circles and got paid to do it.

That does it for this group. Missing a couple of guys, you say? It will make more sense later when I present the top half of the field. I'll also tie it in with a Fontana wrap-up, so keep an eye out for that one!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Day at The Mile

(Editor's note: My race notes are based on what I saw from the stands since I don't know when I'll watch the DVR. So if you heard anything said that is contrary to what I observed, that's why! :--)  )

Today's race at the Milwaukee Mile was certainly a big one, wasn't it? With three races in the next 14 days, culminating with the crowning of the Verizon IndyCar Series champ in Fontana in two weeks, today was put up or shut up time.

One driver put up, but two others in the championship hunt...well, they were shut up. With contenders Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay finishing 11th and 21st, respectively, Will Power's convincing win put him one step closer to the title that has eluded his grasp for the last three seasons.

So let's review, shall we?

Winner: Will Power. Dominant, just dominant. Power led 229 of the 250 laps and made it look, really, really easy. He's put himself in a position where the title is his to lose. While he's been in this position before, this might be the year that he closes it out. This is what Power can do when he is locked in and not making stupid mistakes. Then again, as good as he's been this year, if it weren't for his boneheaded moves he might have clinched the title by now.

2nd place: Juan Pablo Montoya. Take away Iowa, where he has issues early on but by the end of the night was one of the fastest cars on the track until Ed Carpenter put him in the wall, and JPM's average finish on ovals this year is 2.75. He had the hookup today, not enough of one to track down his teammate at the end, but it was good enough to break a string of four straight disappointing finishes since his win at Pocono.

3rd place: Tony Kanaan. TK is certainly coming on as of late, as he notched his fourth podium in the last five races. It's been quite the resurgence for all of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, as Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe have looked great lately too. It would be fun to see TK close it the season out with a win in two weeks.

4th place: Scott Dixon. Sitting 130 points behind Power, Dixon is probably out of title contention, but has rolled to a win (Mid-Ohio) and five Top 5 finishes in his last six races. He is back to doing what he does (run and finish near the front), he's just going to run out of time.

5th place: Josef Newgarden. Though he doesn't have the results to show for it, more and more Newgarden is starting to show up at the front of the field. He was looking at a podium finish before having to pit for fuel and tires with about a dozen laps to go, but with his new kicks carved his way back up the field in a pretty impressive display of driving. The announced merger between Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing made this weekend a big one for his team. I did catch on the TV feed on the scanner that Josef has a contract for next season in hand, so the question becomes...does he sign it?

6th place: Ryan Briscoe. It was a bit of a ho-hum day for Briscoe, as he hung around fourth, fifth or sixth place all day. Sunday marked his eighth Top 10 of the season.

7th place: Simon Pagenaud. Another solid finish, which is the norm for Simon. While while he lost ground to Power he did jump RHR and into third place in the standings. I bet he wishes he could have his 22nd place finishes at Detroit (1) and Toronto (2) back, because those are really what's keeping him from sitting on Power's heels.

Overall I would give the race a solid C-plus. Not the greatest race I've ever watched but at times -- especially coming out of pit stops -- there was some three and sometimes (albeit briefly) four-wide racing. Wish there could've been more but that's the down side of 96.8 percent of the laps (242 of 250) being run under green. While I loathe yellow flags because 1) crashes costs teams money and 2) running laps behind the pace car is boring, sometimes you need a couple sprinkled in there to keep things interesting. Still, it was intriguing to keep up on the strategies each team was employing. Tires and fuel were both factors.

The biggest surprise on the day was the utter fail of Andretti Autosport. For a team that has five wins at the Mile, they were miserable, with Carlos Munoz brushing the wall and finishing DFL in 22nd and RHR having his troubles. Likewise, James Hinchcliffe was struggling with handling problems, then saw his team botch a pit stop where an air gun failed and they didn't change all four tires.

Hinch fell off the lead lap when he had to pit again, and that started a downward spiral that saw him become one of the slowest cars on the track by day's end. He finished 19th. Marco Andretti's 13th place finish was terrible too, but the best AA could manage. That might have been one of the worst days the team has ever experienced, but on a more positive note, Hunter-Reay announced that he has signed a new three-year deal with AA, and DHL will be back as his sponsor. That's always good news.

A really pleasant surprise was the drives by Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth, both of whom have shown improvement on ovals this year. Aleshin, who finished eighth, ran a clean race, while Hawksworth, who looked lost and was absolutely freight trained here in the Indy Lights race last year, rocked a 10th-place effort.

This was the third straight year I had been to the Mile, and my new wife Darcy (today was day No. 22 of our marriage!) made the trip up with me to mark her first ever IndyCar race. Compared to my first visit two years ago, the race has grown and it seemed like the crowd has improved every year. Speaking of put up or shut up, that was the edict sent to IndyCar fans in this area a couple of years ago, and they have responded.

Once again, my hat is off to Michael Andretti and Andretti Marketing for getting it done. I've loved the Mile since I pulled into the parking lot for the first time two years ago, and with it's history and tradition, it's a race that needs to be on the series schedule. Hopefully the event has reached the point it is on solid footing and will continue for years to come.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

IOWA(!)

As loyal readers of this space know, the Iowa race always gets a (!) because it's one of the best races on the schedule on a track that sits in one of the best states in the Heartland. And I was born here, so there's that.

I went with all caps because this was the first year that I saw the race in person, and if you saw my previous post you'd know that Kevin and I were pretty blown away by the experience. The cars look so fast -- especially when it gets dark and the lights take effect -- and it's just a fun way to spend a Saturday night.

So let's go through a few storylines and the top finishers, shall we?

*The Weather. No doubt the rain that hung over the area all weekend long was a question, and with very dark clouds forming as the race was starting, I was pretty worried we were going to get it in. Kevin, who fancies himself an amateur meteorologist, swore he saw some cloud rotation and a funnel, but while it was an awesome display of weather thankfully there was no lightning or locusts or anything like that.

The rains did come, about 30 laps into the race, but the small cell moved through and we were back to it in about 26 minutes. What was nice about the rain is that the temperature dropped and made the rest of the race very comfortable. Before the rains came it was an absolute blast furnace, with the heat index well into the 90s. So it was some good relief. What's amazing is that looking at the radar after the race, it was hard to believe the storms that are still racing east as I write this missed us completely.

*The Decision. No, not Lebron, I'm talking about the decision of Andretti Autosport and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing to go with tires for Ryan Hunter-Rey and Josef Newgarden, respectfully, during the final caution with just over a dozen laps to go. The roll of the dice worked as they were rockets on the final restart and moved up from 10th and 11th place to first and second.

Lots of teams make calls like that over the course of the season, and why not? Both guys had been mired in the mid-field for most of the night, so taking tires and going to the end of the lead lap is no big deal. It doesn't always end up like last night, but it's a risk worth taking, and sometimes it pays off big.

Since I was there (and have a lot to say), I'm going to run through the Top 10.

Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. What made Michael Andretti's call to bring his franchise in for tires even more crucial is that it gave RHR a chance to break a string that has seen some horrible results since winning the Indy 500. Since kissing the bricks, he hadn't led a lap since and had four finishes of P16 or worse. Racing isn't about who is fastest, it's about who crosses the line first. Up until that final restart, RHR had been having a very, very average race, but that final call made all the difference. Now he has three wins this year -- nine in his last 40 races dating back to 2012 -- and is back in the title picture again.

Funny story: after the race Kevin said, "Man, Ryan Hunter-Reay ALWAYS wins!". Turns out he's right...sort of. Kev and I have gone to three races together (Milwaukee 2012-13 and Iowa) and he has won them all. 

Second place: Josef Newgarden. For the second week in a row, Newgarden had a gawd-awful qualifying run, and then followed that up with a really great race. After crashing at Pocono and starting last, he eventually moved up to finish eighth, and in qualifying Friday he was so bad he only started ahead Carlos Huertas, who was seeing Iowa for the first time and was way out his element. Josef gained five spots ahead of the rain and by my count was running as high as seventh with 50 laps to go. His rush to the front was equally impressive to RHR's, and personally I felt he had the stronger car of the two and just ran out of laps. But he and his team needed this one badly.

Third place: Tony Kanaan. Like Newgarden, TK had the same fate two weeks in a row -- but not of the good kind. After a really bizarre strategy call at Pocono left him short on gas and forced him to pit from the lead with three laps to go, he was in front for 247 laps Saturday night, most of the time comfortably in front, and was clearly the class of the field, only to be run over by the RHR-JNew freight train. Still, he looked motivated all weekend long, and his effort the last two weeks shows he and the team are getting there.

Fourth place: Scott Dixon. Like teammate Kanaan, Dixie has been looking for a ray of light for weeks, and seemed to find one when he won the pole and ran well for the second week in a row. He now has four top-5 finishes in his last six races -- why is there a part of me that doesn't think he's quite out of it yet?

Fifth place: Ed Carpenter. Believe it or not, this was just Ed's second top-5 at Iowa since IndyCar started racing there, and despite the finish it will be mostly remembered for his incident with Juan Pablo Montoya that led to the final caution period of the night. I didn't see the incident live but looking at the replay it was clearly Ed's fault, or well, it was his spotter's fault. Here's a fun fact, if you add the total points between Ed and Mike Conway (320) they would sit ninth in the standings, which goes to show that along with two wins his decision to split the races was the right one.

Sixth place: James Hinchcliffe. Speaking of spotters, Hinch didn't need one on Saturday night, he needed a life coach. There is no doubt that Hinch is having his struggles, and even when he was making hay before the rain delay, he wasn't happy, saying over the scanner that he feared if the temperatures dropped his understeer problems would move forward into the front of the car.

He was right, as he had to deal with a big push after dark and just never felt comfortable all night long, at one point saying "this isn't fun". Still, he fought a couple of really good on-track battles during the race, especially one with Simon Pagenaud that was a lot of fun to watch. With only two top-5 finishes on the season, he needs to really make the most of his home games in Toronto this weekend to regain some confidence.

Seventh place: Graham Rahal. Despite a 15th-place starting spot, Rahal was happy with his car and had a quiet, if unspectacular, night. Sitting 19th in points, he needs to start stringing some good finishes together.

Eighth place: Helio Castroneves. Helio's finish doesn't reflect the night he had, as he ran towards the front for a lot of the night and 34 laps right after the rain delay. And here's the weird thing: outside of RHR his finish was the best of the drivers who were in the top eight in points, and as a result he is the new points leader (462), nine ahead of Will Power.

Ninth place: Ryan Briscoe. Like Helio, another guy who probably deserved a better finish. Though he never ran at the point he was in the top four for a huge chunk of the race and at some points seemed to be one of the stronger cars on the track. He's figuring something out too, with five top-10s in his last six race.

Tenth place: Charlie Kimball. How does a guy with seven top-10 finishes sit 16th in points? Well, he's cancelled that out with five finishes of P17 or worse, including P31 and P17 at Indy and Pocono, where double points were at stake. Consistency has been a problem for Charlie since he came to the series in 2012, as great efforts have been followed by lackluster ones.

Sixteenth place: Juan Pablo Montoya. OK, I'm adding one more because JPM might have been the driver who was the most fun to watch Saturday night. After falling off the lead lap due to a problem with his rear wing, and a subsequent pit lane fail, Montoya drove insanely hard the rest of the night. I'm sure the stat is out there somewhere, but I bet he passed more cars than anybody on the track. I've gotta say, he was pretty amazing.

So that's how we saw it from section 104, row 7, seats 29 and 30! What a great race, and I look forward to heading back there again next year.

After three oval races, we head north to Toronto and play two this weekend. This season has been total, utter madness, and with two races (one a standing start) awaiting us in Canada, it should be more of the same.

First Impressions of Iowa(!) Speedway

I'm actually going to write a for-real wrap-up on the race once I have the chance to see it in the DVR sometime Sunday. But I thought it would be fun to just throw out a few thoughts of my first trip to the 7/8th-mile oval just outside Newton, Iowa.

Heading this way had been a thought of mine for a while but it just never worked out, so I was happy when the chance arose this year. I was originally going to make the trip for both Friday and Saturday, but when I realized the IndyCar race was Saturday night we just decide to trek in for the main event.

So Kevin (my 13-year-old son) hit the road about 12:40 and headed out of Aurora. Our first stop would be at our hotel in Coralville, where I wanted to check in and get a look at the weather. Everyone on the ground there said "come on out!" so we did. My other concern was about traffic, but thankfully that wasn't  a problem either as we were in and parked right away.

Iowa Speedway is one of the "newer" tracks, built in 2006 just south of Interstate 80 a ways east of Des Moines. IndyCar has been a tenant and partner since the beginning, and local businesses have always figured a way to keep the series there. While how the series is looked at by track administration now that it facility is owned by NASCAR remains to be seen, it appears they will always keep a window open as while the crowds aren't overflowing, they are decent and there is a lot of sponsor activation.

In my life as a race fan, I've been to events at Indianapolis, Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Iowa and Daytona. I've also visited Monza (the post of my awesome day is here) as well as the 1992 Cleveland Grand Prix (RIP).

If I had to compare them to baseball stadiums, Indy would be Wrigley Field, Daytona would be Dodger Stadium (really the first of its kind), Milwaukee would be old Yankee Stadium (lots of history but heavily renovated) and Chicagoland and Iowa would both be like the new ballparks that have sprung up, like new Busch Stadium in St. Louis or someplace like that.

There is room for all of them. While Indy lacks lots of emenities, like functioning rest rooms and good sight lines, it makes up for it because, well, it's Indy. Your ticket is buying you passage into a living, breathing place of history, one of the best and most amazing sporting events on the planet, as well as a chance to see cars going faster than any race course in the world. So while things are cramped and in some places you can't see a lot of the track, the expectations are different because it's a 100-year-old facility.

The newer tracks, however, have a much different vibe. Most just have seats along the front straight, and the massive grandstands cut a pretty imposing figure as they rise several stories into the air. Since it sits on top of a hill and is less than a mile from the road, Iowa is visible from I-80 and it cuts a pretty impressive sight as it rises up from the cornfields.

The facilities are just better: better bathrooms and bigger concourses make it easy to move around, and the newer tracks are almost all built a bit like a bowl, so the infield sits low and you can see all the way around the track. Kevin wanted to sit close to the track, so we were in the seventh row and still could see pretty much the entire race course.

One of the things I tell people about racing in general is that if you have only watched it on TV, you haven't done yourself justice. Racing is something that has to be experienced in person, because TV doesn't capture the real speed and power of the cars.

To tell the truth, TV does no justice to Iowa, because there is no way it can show how fast the cars are really going. Once the race got started, I was absolutely amazed at the visual overload of cars running around a bullring oval at 180 mph. While Indy is 40 mph faster, my senses are used to being there. Iowa, meanwhile, is a whole different animal. The cars looked like fighter jets streaking flat-out around that little track. No doubt a very amazing experience, especially once it got dark, which made the cars look even more badass.

 The race, of course, was pretty excellent. While Tony Kanaan dominated the race, leading 247 of the 300 laps, there were lots of great battles all over the track that hopefully they showed on TV. While it wasn't crazy, 3-wide stuff, it was side-by-side racing where drivers had to battle to win positions.

We listened to James Hinchcliffe's scanner all night, and during one of many face offs with Simon Pagenaud his spotter yelled into the radio "Make him work for it!" Until winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and runner-up Josef Newgarden took tires during the last yellow and freight trained the rest of the field on their way to the front, nothing out there was easy, especially dealing with slower traffic.

But that's short-track racing, isn't it? I hope that Iowa Speedway remains on the IndyCar schedule for a long time, and I think it will. Despite the initial fears we all had once NASCAR took over the track, I think it's a mutually beneficial arrangement that will, or should, continue. Having now been on the schedule for several years, the race has a solid fanbase and has racing that creates even more fans every year. Like Kevin and I.

Iowa is a place every IndyCar fan should figure out how to experience at least once, and I have a feeling it will be on our schedule next year. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pocono!

Just getting warmed up for my trip to Iowa next weekend with the title to this post. As loyal readers know, I always title my Iowa wrap-up Iowa! because 1) the race is all kind of awesome and 2) I was born in Davenport and my family goes back almost 200 years in the state. So I'm kind of a native.

Actually, if I had written this post this morning it could've been called Poco-No! given some of the turmoil going on this weekend. Of course, there was the Thursday story in which track principal Brandon Igdalsky tried to napalm his relationship with the IndyCar series (like he cares, more on that later) and then this morning we found out rookie Jack Hawksworth wouldn't be racing due to a heart contusion (!) he suffered in a practice crash.

Disappointing for him, for sure, but that's scary stuff, as was his crash that was measured at 100G's. Hope he's cleared in time for next weekend.

But as usual, the show trumped all, as the guys put on a race that made us forget about all of the crappy stuff.

While it wasn't chock full of the excitement many wanted (what, like 37 wrecked race cars? Now THAT'S exciting), it was some awesome pure racing, with strategy and talent coming to the forefront. If you look at the Top 5, with the exception of Carlos Munoz, whose ability to drive 2 1/2 mile ovals is beyond explanation, the other four drivers have probably made close to 500 open wheel starts. While I'm not sold on 500-mile races outside of Indy, it seems like the longer races go, the more talent and experience makes a difference.

Like Indy, and Texas, the race went on a long green to start, going a record 158 laps before Graham Rahal brought out the one -- and only -- caution of the day.

When Juan Pablo Montoya took the checkered flag about 30 minutes later, they had averaged 202 miles per hour, the fastest 500-mile race in open wheel history. Think about that, they covered 500 miles in just a shade under 2 1/2 hours. That's flying.

So let's go through the Top 5, and my obligatory comment about Will Power.

Winner: Juan Pablo Montoya. It's safe to say that JPM has answered any questions left about his desire and motivation, hasn't it? All of the sudden he's a title contender after going P3, P2, P7 and P1 in the last four races. I've always felt Juan gets in trouble when he gets impatient, but when he is patient and confident, and has a good car under him, he's one of the best on the planet. Also, huge props to him for going into the stands after the race and celebrating with the Colombians who had made the trip to Pocono to root him on.

Runner-up: Helio Castroveves. After the disaster that was Houston last weekend, Helio needed this one badly. Though he never led a lap all day, he was near the front throughout. With double points at stake, he pulled into a tie with Power for the top spot in the championship standings.

Third place: Carlos Munoz. Where does a 22-year-old who didn't grow up in this country and didn't see an oval until two years ago get the ability he has to drive superspeedways? Well one, he is truly fearless and two, he's just that talented. In three 2 1/2 mile oval races in his career, he's gone P2, P4 (both at Indy) and P3. Today marked his third podium and fourth Top 5 of the year, all from a guy who has run 13 races in his IndyCar career.

Fourth place: Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe is having a typical Briscoe-like season (for the most part), he consistently puts together Top 5-10 finishes and then pulls out a win somewhere along the way. Today he just missed out on the 29th podium of his career. I don't know if in the "new" IndyCar -- the competitive-as-hell version -- he could win a championship, but for the most part you know what you will get from him. And that's not a bad thing.

Fifth place: Scott Dixon. The Champ picked up his fifth Top 5 of the season, but his season sure feels a lot more disastrous than that, doesn't it? He moved up to eighth in the standings, which isn't THAT bad, but he has set the bar so high this year looks to be more of a train wreck than it really is.

Honorable mention: Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Mikhail Aleshin. TK and Josef went off-strategy in the last 100 miles of the race, and with a yellow it may have worked out for them, but in the end they ended up a handful of laps short and were forced to pit from the lead, finishing P11 an P8, respectively. Although given the season Newgarden has had, and his crash in qualifying Saturday, forcing him to start last, his team probably left with a bit of a smile on its face. Aleshin, meanwhile, ran a clean race and came home with another good finish. Race your hand if you saw this coming.

Will Power: You know, it's probably a good thing that Power is such a knucklehead and keeps running his way into stupid penalties, because if he hadn't, the championship chase would be incredibly boring. Today's drive through for blocking Helio Castroneves was his FIFTH of the season. I try and give the benefit of the doubt to everyone in this space, but he's turning into a clown with his dumb-ass decisions and his ridiculous explanations afterwards. Had he pushed HCN any further toward the bottom of the track, he would've punted him into the woods outside the backstretch, but his explanation was that he was letting Helio by. Then he proceeds to talk smack to the guys in the booth for criticizing him. Um, it's their job dude, and you are making their job pretty easy. I don't get it, he doesn't even seem to feel like he has a need to learn from his mistakes, and I have yet to hear him sincerely apologize for what he does. It's always someone else's fault. I can't root for a guy like that.

2015: And finally, of course because it's the IndyCar series, the future of the race is in doubt after Igdalsky said Thursday ticket sales were "scary" and he was thinking of trying to get out of the last year of the race's contract.

There are two sides to this coin, and in the sense of fairness I'll address them both. He is right when he says that IndyCar clamors for ovals yet no one supports them. That is true. (Well, half of it is crap because I have supported two of them each of the last two years and this year will support three) However, it's also his responsibility to do all he can to promote the race. While IndyCar does have a hand in that, it's also up to the venue to do their part. I don't see how racing is different from any other sport. It's not the job of the governing body to do the bulk of the promotion for an individual race. That's like saying the NBA is responsible for promoting and marketing the Bulls in Chicago. That's not the NBA's responsibility, it's on the Bulls. When I drive around here and see a billboard promoting the NASCAR races at Chicagoland Speedway, that wasn't NASCAR that put up those billboards, it was the track. To me this is no different. If people don't come out to the race, that's on the track, not the series. Do I think IndyCar should be more proactive and expect more from its tracks? Sure. Do I think they need to hold the track's hands? No. We are dealing with successful, multi-million dollar businesses here, that are being run by smart, well-educated people. They know what works and what doesn't.

I really get frustrated with the idea that any time a race fails, the blame fits on the shoulders of IndyCar. It also goes on the shoulders of people who are bad business partners. It's clear that Pocono didn't go all-out on the promotion of this race, and why should they? I've long contended in this space that IndyCar needs to work with business partners that are in this to be good business partners. Fortunately over the last few years they have found lots of them, and the core of the series should be built around that. That's just good business. If someone doesn't want to be a good business partner and doesn't want to help grow the series and their own individual race, I say screw them. That may lead to the not-so-Utopia-type of series we wish we had, where we race at places like Michigan, Phoenix, Chicagoland or Road America and everything is awesome like the 1990s again, where only 2-3 teams could win races and most oval races were won by a lap or more, but at least the hope is that IndyCar is working with people who don't crap on us all, either.

Rant over.

Points: As mentioned, Power and HCN are tied at the top with 446 points, while Simon Pagenaud is hanging in there in P3, 44 points behind. Montoya is fourth and lurking, 55 points back, while Ryan Hunter-Reay, who dropped out early with suspension problems, is P5 with 388 points.

Next week: Iowa! I'll be on the ground in Newton for Saturday night's race, and am excited about my first trip out there. Can't wait!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Day For Firsts

No matter how many times you go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 500, something happens that you probably haven't seen before.

Yesterday, I saw not one, but two new things, and if you watched the race you probably know what I'm talking about. But one thing I had seen before was a great race, and the guys (and lady) of the IndyCar series put on another great show, with Ryan Hunter-Reay putting on two passes for the ages when he got around Helio Castroneves and went on to his first-ever win.

But I don't think it will be his last.

So here are a couple of talking points and a rundown of the Top 10 finishers.

Long green: Last year saw a green run of close to 135 laps which saw the race finish with a record average speed of 187.433 mph. Sunday was green for the first 149 laps of the race (obliterating the previous record of 65 set in 2000) and through that point the event was being run at a furious pace. The five caution periods over the race's 50 laps "slowed" the average to 186.5, but it was pretty amazing to see how quickly the laps fell by the wayside. I don't have the official number, but the first 250 miles were covered in about 70 minutes. That's just crazy.

I like long green runs, and there have been a lot of them the last two years. It's like a two-hour baseball game, it seems like the race is a lot more intense and the drivers are sharper and get stronger as the green goes on.

The red: I was a little surprised when race control decided to stop the race after Townsend Bell's Lap 192 incident, and a day later I'm still on the fence as to whether it was the right thing to do. From a fan standpoint, it was certainly the right decision. It gave the safety crew time to clean up Bell's debris field (and make any repairs to the fence/SAFER barrier) while giving the fans the opportunity to see a green finish.

On the other hand, from a purist perspective, it is a slippery slope. But given the three options of 1) red flagging the race, 2) finishing the race under caution, which was a possibility and 3) going to a green-white-checker finish, I would choose option one all the time. That's not to say I'd agree with it had the accident happened on Lap 198 or something, but there were enough laps left that I felt given every option available it was the right one. Because in the end there was an Indy 500 title on the line and huge points implications, and beyond what was great to the fans, race control owed it to the drivers to try and settle it themselves while keeping the integrity of the 500-mile race distance.

The crash: You know the one, the Ed Carpenter/James Hinchcliffe shunt on the Lap 176 restart that saw both of them taken out of the race and Ed looking to punch Hinch in the face. Hinch was smart to keep his helmet on, but what was up with putting them both in the same safety vehicle for the ride to the infield care center?

Oh well. Having watched the replay, I couldn't believe all three of them thought they could fit into a one-groove corner. Bell was a little too optimistic going wide and with 60 miles of racing left Hinch shouldn't have tried to stuff it into the corner. But as we saw with Ryan Hunter-Reay's race-winning pass with a couple of laps left, there was a "no attack, no chance" (thanks, Takuma Sato) attitude to a lot of the racing. They did a lot of crazy stuff that had me worried.

For Carpenter, he lost a chance to win the race he cares most about winning, and for Hinch it just piled on to the horrible month, and season, he's been having.

Jim Nabors: No post would be complete without a mention of the farewell performance of Nabors. As always, he nailed it, and as the song went on I just couldn't stop thinking of how it will never be the same to me. Maybe they will find someone else to sing it, but he IS Mr. Back Home Again, and I don't know how you replace that. I never knew how big of a deal it was until I saw my first race in 1988 (like many aspects of Indy, TV does it no justice), but when I think of the 500 ultimately I end up thinking of Jim Nabors and his beautiful singing, not to mention his kindness to people and his humility about his amazing talent. Thanks so much for everything you have done, Jim. You are one of the many reasons why we love the 500.

I could go on with storylines all day, but let's talk about the drivers, shall we?

Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. When RHR qualified 19th last weekend I wondered how long it would take him to push his way to the front. The answer was not very. He drove a brilliant race and was hands-down the combination of the best car and driver Sunday. Plus, his passes for the (eventual) win is the stuff of legend, the epitome of Al Unser Jr's comment about there being a point in a race that life or death doesn't matter, just winning. That pass is one that people will be talking about years from now.

He's also the first American-born champion since 2006 (Sam Hornish) and is a good bet to add another win or two in his future. He also became the first driver since Bill Vukovich (1954) to win from the 19th starting position.

Runner-up: Helio Castroneves. Helio put up a good face for TV, which he's good at, but you know that he is gutted about this race, and it will be one that eats at him for a long, long time. No doubt he didn't do anything to lose this race -- he just flat got beat -- but when a man comes .06 seconds from winning his fourth 500, he won't get over it very easily. If there is any solace at all, it's that Helio drove an incredible race, by far the best one he's run since last winning in 2009.

Sunday also proved how much of a game-changer the DW12 has become. In years past, Helio would've made that pass for the lead and laid down qualifying-style laps from there to put it away. He's one of the best closers the 500 has ever seen, but that just can't be done any more.

Third place: Marco Andretti. Once again, Andretti ran a race in the same style of his dad (Michael) and grandpa (Mario) -- pushing hard and always trying to move to the front. I thought he was another driver who drove an exceptional race, but his car just wasn't fast enough at the end. He's drove with even more maturity than he had in the past, and finished with the fourth podium of his Indy 500 career. He's going to win one day...right. Right?

Fourth: Carlos Munoz. When a golfer has a knack for playing a certain course -- or even a certain hole -- particularly well, people say that the course (or hole) "fits his eye". With a P2 and P4 in his first two years, I think you can say that IMS fits Carlos' eye very, very well. Sitting in the SW Vista, I paid particular attention to his driving line, and I wouldn't be surprised if the left side of his car was full of grass stains at the end. He loves that low line, and he is young enough (and crazy enough) to make it work. This guy has to be considered a serious threat from here on out.

Fifth: Juan Pablo Montoya. JPM showed that he didn't forget much in the 14 years since he won the 500 in his only start in 2000. But, just like the Brickyard 400 in 2009, he made a mistake that probably cost him the race when he had to serve a drive through penalty on Lap 134 for speeding on pit road. As both JPM and Will Power -- who served a drive through of his own four laps earlier -- learned, you can't make a single mistake and expect to win.

Sixth: Kurt Busch. During the long green run when he was driving by himself and mired in about 16th place, I made the crack on Twitter that Kurt was looking for a NASCAR-style debris caution. I kid, I kid. At the time it was obvious that Busch was struggling with the car (which was Marco Andretti's backup since he had crashed his primary car last Monday), but once he got back into the lead pack he came to life. This year's Rookie of the Year, Busch was as advertised.

Of course, his performance left some saying "it just shows that NASCAR drivers are better than IndyCar drivers". No, it shows that he's a pretty talented guy, talented enough to do something not a lot of other drivers could do. I'm not going to nit-pick that his move to sixth was aided by attrition, because it's harder than that, so I'm going to give the guy the respect he deserves. He put himself out there, with the knowledge that a bad result, especially a crash, would've been a blow to his reputation. He talked it and backed it up, I hope to see him at Indy again.

Seventh: Sebastien Bourdais. After finishing P12, P20 and P29 in his first three attempts at Indy, Seabass put together the best month of his career. Very nice effort.

Eighth: Will Power. See Montoya, Juan Pablo. Power showed that his win at Fontana was no fluke with his performance, but a drive through penalty dropped him out of the Top 10 and left him struggling the rest of the day. This was his best chance to win, no doubt, but Power's kryptonite is his penchant for making mistakes. When he runs clean, he's tough to beat, but for an elite level driver, he makes too many mistakes.

Ninth: Sage Karam. Whenever I mentioned to my 18-year-old son Matt how well I thought Karam was doing, he would shake his head and say "I can't believe he is only a year older than me!". I know, me either. He was certainly solid and spent a stint in the middle of the race at or around the Top 5. In all he improved 22 spots from his P31 starting position (to match his car number), an impressive feat for any driver, especially one making his first 500 start.

Tenth: JR Hildebrand. Remember the "redemption" slant that I touched on after qualifying? He didn't have it then, but he has it now. I don't know what, if anything, this leads to for him, but as I stated after qualifying: he's a good guy and it's good to see nice things happening for him. It may not lead to much this season, but I can guarantee he's locked himself into something for May, 2015, and that's not really a bad thing. Besides, if he wants some inspiration, he can look no further than Hunter-Reay, who had to prove himself a couple of times and never really got his career on track until his late twenties. Age and experience...age and experience.

Once again, Matt and I had a wonderful time at the race, the fourth time we have gone together. I keep telling him he's a bit spoiled because he's always seen incredible races, but at the same time, that probably won't change. Spending a weekend with Matt was a blast, and that is a tradition that I also hope never changes, and next year my soon-to-be-14-year-old, Kevin, will probably join us. He loves supercars and can't wait to come with us to the Speedway.

I also think we have a new fan in my soon-to-be-brother-in-law, Adam. He texted me several times during the race and at the end of the race said "You got me back into the 500". Hopefully he can make the trip down next year, too.

After all, there's always room for more, although I'm not sure how many more. Over the last few years the increase in attendance has been really encouraging, and outside of qualifying the attendance at the GP, Carb Day and the race way exceeded my expectations. The biggest race in the world keeps getting bigger.

Sunday was also a reminder of why I do this blog, which is to share the my passion 500 and the IndyCar series with others. Like many, Race Day is like Christmas, so I want to take this opportunity to tell everyone who reads my little corner of the Internet how thankful I am for you and how much you all help in my enjoyment of the sport.

Is it May, 2015 yet?