A Mid-Season Analysis

Good Friday afternoon ‘Naptown readers and fellow race fans. It’s mid-season for the IndyCars. Ten races remain; three ovals, three street circuits and two road courses. That’s only eight races you say… well there are two double-header weekends still remaining at Toronto and Houston. We get the last half of the 2013 season started this weekend with one of the most entertaining venues on the schedule, the 7/8 mile bull-ring at Iowa Speedway.

And since we’re half-way through the season, let’s take a look back at the notable events and statistics that account for the first nine races of the 2013 IndyCar campaign. First, some quick observations about Milwaukee IndyFest. Then a little whirl through the numbers that account for the first nine races.

IndyFest.

Short and sweet. A good race. As with Texas, hard core race fans probably had a blast watching the race. But there was plenty of decent racing there (somewhat more than Texas) to keep casual fans entertained. The NBC Sports Network coverage was excellent, something we’ve come to expect from the network. The mixture of the Formula One broadcast talent was a very nice twist. David Hobbs was impeccably prepared, more so than I would have expected and Will Buxton brings an energy to the pit road that further adds to the quality of the broadcast. In my book, Hobbs and Buxton are welcome on any future NBCSN broadcast.

The race was typical of the Milwaukee Mile. Hard fought. Confusing at times. Demanding of the guy or girl in the seat. I was surprised by the relative few number of incidents, which seems to be a trend this season, especially on ovals. The Andretti cars were dominant right off the transporters. It looked like an all Andretti weekend from the outset. Marco pole. All four AA cars in the top five starting slots. Marco taking a commanding lead early, RHR slipping by him at the end of the first stint, with Hinch and Viso lurking. Helio and Will made their presence known at the end after Taku dominated and faded and Newgarden, Wilson and Dixon flirted with the front of the field. In the end RHR demonstrated his experience and preparation.

All-in-all, a solid, entertaining race with excellent TV coverage. The attendance was similar (maybe a bit higher) to last season. From all on the first hand reports, it was a very well done event. We as fans can only hope, Michael and crew keep IndyFest an annual event for years to come.

Mid-Season Review

The highlight of the year so far, without doubt, has to be TK’s Indy victory. I still have a little Indy afterglow. Great race throughout. An obviously popular winner. Something the 500 doesn’t always provide. So many times, a great race ends with a tepid finish (and/or winner), or a butt-ugly boring race, has an incredible race to the yard of bricks (remember 1992). Congratulations TK on your Indianapolis 500 victory! (once again, I really enjoy writing those words)

Another highlight: no-less than three first time winners – Hinch, Pagenaud and Taku. Overall, seven different winners from five different teams. And let’s not forget Mike Conway’s ridiculous domination at Detroit. No doubt one of the Coyne’s TBA’s will be filled-in by Mike in some upcoming races.

Disappointments and surprises so far? A few. Chip’s boys haven’t been to victory lane this year. The father-son pairing at Rahal Letterman Lanigan hasn’t produced much to smile about. Pippa Mann, after tons of work to get in the car, twice, has had disappointingly short races.

For some additional insight, let’s take a look inside the statistics for the first half. There are some interesting nuggets in these numbers.

Let’s focus on the top ten drivers in points

  • Nine of the top ten drivers have at least one podium, with Dario being the outlier with a best finish of 4th at Long Beach.
  • Castroneves is the only driver in the top ten whose poorest race result is better that 15th by posting a 13th place finish in Brazil. HCN’s other eight finishes have all been in the top ten. The other nine drivers in the top ten ALL have at least one finish of 20th or higher.
  • Hunter-Reay poorest starting position is 8th, best in the top ten. The next closest is Castroneves at 18th and TK at 19th. All other drivers in the top ten have started at least one race from 20th or higher.
  • Justin Wilson is the only driver in the top ten that hasn’t started in the top six, with his best starting position being 8th.  Only three of the top ten drivers so far have qualified on the pole.
  • The Heat Index (The cumulative number of positions gained or lost from the driver’s starting position for all races so far this season.) Simon Pagenaud is +46, while (amazingly) Hunter-Reay is -46.  Castroneves +37.  Wilson +31. Dixon +29.  Hinch -34.

If you step outside the top ten in points, Will Power is actually -68, last on the Heat Index. Will has had good pace virtually every weekend with an average starting position of 5.56, but lousy racing luck that has him outside the top ten in points in 11th. The only other driver with a better average starting position is RHR at 3.78… go figure.  Joseph Newgarden is the overall biggest positive mover at +47, just edging ahead of Pagenaud.

What does the rest of the season look like? Who will win the championship? I’ll provide some more detail analysis and crank up the prognostication machine in an upcoming post.

The Iowa Corn Indy 250 always proves to be a great show. And who doesn’t love a big green gas pump for a trophy?  Given his consistency so far this year and his history at Iowa Speedway, Marco and the RC Cola car could be tough to beat. So… enjoy the race on Sunday and don’t forget to dial up the streaming video of the heat races on Saturday evening via IndyCar.com.

A Tale of Three Races

I’ve once again been ruminating on the racing weekend before writing. My first reaction… a bit of a yawner. Considering the three major races from the weekend, I see it this way: not the most exciting weekend of racing we’ve seen.

F1. Canadian Grand Prix. A Sebastian Vettel beatdown.
NASCAR. Party in the Poconos. A Jimmie Johnson beatdown.
IndyCar. The Firestone 550 at TMS. A Helio Castroneves beatdown.

Three super teams in their respective series, essentially dominating the competition. Not worth spending time or DVR space? Here’s my take. For the race fan – yes. For the casual fan – maybe not riveting, but still entertaining. I started thinking about this weekend in the context of IndyCar’s quest for expanding their fan base. and my thoughts began to crystallize around the following ideas.

A quick aside: First, I think it’s important to unscientifically define a casual fan to put the rest of my thoughts in context. My thoughts about a casual fan revolve around TV and are one of two types of viewers. A traditional stick and ball sport kind of person who comes across the IndyCar broadcast or was drawn in by some sort of prior promotion. A potential eyeball that appreciates sports for excitement. The other casual fan is a more serious fan of the other series, sort of like like the NASCAR / Nationwide guys on Saturday night turning over to the only other racing on TV because their race was rained out. Got that? Good. On to the in-depth analysis.

I think the answer to whether Saturday night was an engaging, interesting race depends on the type of “fan” watching the race. The true racing fan versus the casual (sports) fan. For the casual fan, Saturday night… snoozefest. For the racing fan… different story. The racing this weekend for IndyCar (and F1), was sort of like a good pitchers duel. The “parts flying, fence crashing, wheel-to-wheel dicing, last lap pass for the win excitement quotient” (important for the casual fan) just wasn’t there. But it you appreciate different pit strategies, tire management, and the driver, driving the car, then this weekend had interest. The racing fan could sit there with timing and scoring running, thinking about pit windows, looking at speed differentials, and get some appreciation for the skill of the drivers and well managed races on the teams part.

I love tight, safe wheel-to-wheel racing as much as the next guy, just like it’s fun to watch a couple of baseball teams hit lasers into the gaps and run the bases. But not every race will have racing like Indy or Sao Paulo or even Detroit (at times). Nor can we really expect to see last corner passes for the win at every race. We can hope, but we can’t count on it.

Now, why so much talk of casual fans versus racing fans? Because IndyCar needs to attract and retain more eyeballs from that casual fan group. I watched much of the NASCAR race and all of the F1 and IndyCar race. In the battle for casual fans, I came away with this conclusion. IndyCar lost in terms of on screen entertainment this weekend. And not solely because the “racing” was bad. No, the racing was different than prior races this season (maybe we’re getting a little spoiled), but it wasn’t bad. There was still a good racing product there. The issue? ABC lacks the tools and ability to turn the race product IndyCar gave them into a compelling TV product.

The NASCAR and F1 races, with the same quality of racing (for their series), beat IndyCar because the quality of the TV product delivered was superior.  Honestly, the IndyCar broadcast was DOA. There are lots of haters out there when it comes to ABC and IndyCar. I consider myself more of a “groaner” rather than a “hater” when it comes to ABC. I’ve watched IndyCar on ABC for years and years. In the past, the broadcast product was better. So instead of just saying “ABC sucks” (which doesn’t help anybody), I thought I’d offer some pointed criticism of the ABC broadcast, that was stark in contrast to the TV products aired for NASCAR and F! this past weekend.

Racing is an exciting sport, especially in person. The sight, the sound, the feeling you get in the chest, the smell of the burning ethanol; racing is a visceral, exciting sport unlike any other type of live sporting event. Certainly it’s impossible for a TV broadcast to communicate all of the sensory excitement associated with racing.  Although, TV does have some advantages in certain areas, such as allowing the race fan to follow the racing around the entire circuit and providing insight into the race strategy through the broadcast crew in the booth and in the pits.

The objective of the TV broadcast is to translate the excitement of the live race as best they can using top quality production, along with background and insight delivered by the entire on-air broadcast team.  This is where ABC fails miserably. Frankly, it just feels like the brass at ABC are just mailing it in.

Why? The ABC broadcasts miss the mark in production value and on-air talent.  I’m going to focus my critique primarily on the on-air talent, or to be more precise the lack of on-air talent in the booth.  While there are issues with the production itself, all the terrific production value in the world can’t make up for a lack of talent in the broadcast booth. Candidly, the current team at ABC consistently delivers bland, lackluster performances.

Let’s start with the lead announcer.  I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a Marty Reid fan. I’ve just always had this feeling he didn’t have much passion for this job. Whether he has passion for racing is frankly irrelevant, his JOB is to communicate passion for the sport he covers. Compare Marty (in your mind) to Paul Page, Bob Jenkins, Leigh Diffey… even some of the stick and ball sports guys. There’s just no authentic emotion or passion in his call of a race. It feels as though there just isn’t a true understanding of the important elements of racing, let alone the nuances of racing that would make his race call interesting. It feels to me like he’s just watching guys driving around the track.  He’s fine with the obvious stuff like “oh, there’s a crash in turn 2″, but there’s just a complete lack foresight and insight.

Turning our attention to the color team of Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever.  The verdict here isn’t much better. I respected both of them as drivers.  But as announcers, sorry guys, it’s just not happening.  No energy. No polish. No real insight. No chemistry you can feel. Let’s also consider the fact that neither Eddie or Scott been in one of these cars in a long time. They haven’t raced against any of the current field. Their insight about many of the current tracks and equipment just isn’t there. Now, is all that essential, not necessarily. But you couple that with zero energy and no chemistry and the result isn’t good.

Compare that to the other broadcast teams. Just for grins, let’s take David Hobbs and Steve Matchett. Energy. Wit. Knowledge. Even though both have been out of the competition end of the sport for some time, they are current and vibrant and get pique the viewers interest. They call the race from a STUDIO 1000′s of miles away from the track for most of the races during the year, yet the energy and excitement they deliver to the viewer is palpable.  How about Jon Beekhuis?  Professor B hasn’t been in the cockpit for years, but he’s able to impart a sense of confidence and knowledge about the sport that is authentic.  Not to mention, Jon is a great straight man to Wally Dallenbach’s wit… and insight. You hear that chemistry and feel the energy from all of these color analysts.

The ABC team comes across as bored and confused. It feels like you’re watching a pair of guys that just started doing this TV stuff. The problem is, both Eddie and Scott have been doing this for years! It seems they’re just watching the race, making obvious comments with no insight or back story.  They don’t provide any foresight about how the race is developing. Almost nothing related to any strategy that’s unfolding on the track or in the pits. It doesn’t help the casual fan when car A passes car B and Eddie says… “wow, car A passed car B”. We can see that. Bring the insight. Talk about how car A was setting up car B for three laps and that car B’s tires might be going off or car B’s driver is texting while driving. Something! Please! Saturday night was a perfect example of providing ZERO insight and intrigue about the race as it unfolded. If the casual fan was watching, they were lost as to why some cars were lapping at 190, and some were lapping at 200, and HCN was flying around at 205, almost lapping the entire field.

An example. David Hobbs never raced at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. But last fall, he LAPPED the circuit in a performance car prior to the race weekend and got a feel for the race track. That literally came through in the broadcast over the weekend when he was talking about the sweeping turns going down the hill from turn one. He talked about the visibility and the elevation changes and how the drivers have to compensate and how the lateral G’s complicate the job they’re doing when zipping through there at 160+ MPH. And “that’s a tricky apex right there…” David’s last F1 start: 1974. Le Mans: 1989. Last Indy 500 start: 1976.

A point about approaching those casual fans.  Please don’t continue to treat the audience like they’ve NEVER SEEN A CAR RACE BEFORE. Sure, there will be some viewers who are first timers. But the disappointed Nationwide guys flipping over to IndyCar after their Iowa race was rained out don’t want to hear: “she’s pulling down off the track, we call that the apron”, OR “the pit crews will see that on what we call telemetry”. Shut the front door!! I would wager a significant portion of your audience is insulted by phrases like this. ABC must step back and realize, they can’t continue to treat IndyCar broadcasts like they were Sesame Street. Don’t explain to the audience that these racing cars use tires that are made from rubber and those tires run on race tracks that are paved with a material we call asphalt.

And lastly, a quick production note, although the list is long. Let me highlight one thing: Spiderman. When you miss the race winner actually crossing the finish line and then immediately go to commercial while one of the great IndyCar personalities pulls his signature fence climb… you have NO CLUE WHAT YOU’RE DOING. And no, it doesn’t matter that you were “side-by-side”.

The NBC Sports team is sailing by ABC on both their IndyCar and F1 broadcasts with better insight and content in the broadcast, and WAY MORE chemistry and energy in the booth across the board.

ABC… it can and is being done… you have the wrong talent and the wrong approach. Get new talent and treat your viewing audience like they have a little bit of racing knowledge, and start translating some of that on track excitement to the viewers.

Dual Reflections

Wow… did anyone see that coming? And I’m talking about one Michael Conway. Most everyone was wringing their hands over two full races in a single weekend… back to back… over two days… locusts, famine, plague… And the story after the weekend, Mike Conway hops a plane mid-week, shows up with a generic driving suit and SPANKS the rest of the regular runners. Thankfully, the predicted rainy weather never materialized and we saw two good street races over two days.

So let’s take a look at The Good, The Not So Good, and The … Eh, from the weekend racing in the “motor city”.

The Good

The Duals gave us some pretty obvious highlights: Mike Conway, Dale Coyne Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Schmidt Hamilton Racing, Simon Pagenaud, James Jakes, Graham Rahal, Joseph Newgarden, and the Circuit at Belle Isle. And what is the constant theme here? Honda.

Mike Conway. Welcome back to IndyCar Mike Conway. At Long Beach, Mike qualified fifth, but was shown the door before halfway with an electrical issue. In Detroit, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say he blew away the field. Conway looked like a guy who was late to work, driving on the Washington Metro beltway during rush-hour.  Dale Coyne’s team gave Mike a great car (love the hold-over paint scheme from the 500) and he drove the wheels off. Few times in recent memory do I actually remember being able to see someone visibly gaining and passing on a street course, at the rate Conway did on Sunday. Conway stole 92 points from the regulars this weekend. Don’t forget this in the heat of championship battle later this season.

Dale Coyne Racing. What more can you say. A win, two third places, and one pole between Conway and Wilson. Not to mention Conway qualified third for the first race and started second because of the Franchitti grid penalty.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing. TCGR finally got from the start of the weekend to the end with decent results. They’ve shown flashes of promise prior to Detroit, but were just never able to finish with some decent results. Qualifying wasn’t great this weekend, although Dario did take the pole for race one but then served a 10 spot grid penalty for the illegal engine swap at Indy. Even though the starting slots weren’t stellar, how about this: over two races, 5 of 6 cars in the top ten, 3 of 6 in the top five (Dixie drove to 4th in both races), 3 laps lead (Kimball), Kimball was the second best charger for the weekend making up 22 starting spots over two races, and the three drivers scored 166 driver points for two races.  There has to be some smiles in Ganassi-ville after this weekend.

Simon Pagenaud. Pagenaud earns his first race win with an exceptional drive on Sunday by staying out of trouble and far enough away from Conway. I’m still not sure how he managed to gap everyone that much before his final stop, but great drive from Simon and super work by the always able Schmidt Hamilton HP crew.

Sam Schmidt. With all of the success Sam has enjoyed in Indy Lights, it was a bit of a surprise that this is Sam’s first IndyCar win. Is there anyone any more deserving? I think not.

James Jakes. Wow. What a performance this weekend from the Brit. Fast Six participant both days, starts outside pole in race one, third in race two and brings it home for his first podium in IndyCar.

Graham Rahal. I’m sure Graham wants much better, but there was some consistency this weekend. Top ten (in fact 9th) both days after advancing a total of 20 spots over the two days from his starting positions.

Joseph Newgarden. Saturday was his better day with a seventh place finish, but he moved to the front in both races making up a total of 25 starting position spots over both races. Joseph was the king of the chargers for the weekend.

Honda. The consistent theme in all the notes above is Honda. The HPD boys rebounded from the struggles at Indy and took a big gulp of feel good champagne in Detroit. Over the two races, Honda power claimed 5 of 6 podium positions and 14 out of 20 slots in the top ten. The second straight year of Honda domination on Chevy home turf.

The Track. Not part of the Honda theme, but definitely one of the bright spots of the weekend, especially after the debacle of the disintegrating track last year. The changes to the track definitely improved the racing and with the exception of some errantly placed painted tires; the track actually enhanced the racing. According to one Tweeter report early Monday morning, the weekend drew over 100,000 fans. Here, here.

The Not So Good

This wasn’t an awful weekend by any means. There was plenty of worry before the event about two races and how the drivers and teams would do. All in all, only a few glaring negatives from the weekend: Allmendinger, Sato, Chevy and ABC.

AJ Allmendinger. It’s tough to beat up AJ any more than he already has himself, both through TV and the Tweeters on Monday morning. But let me remind Mr. Allmendinger of something. Is this worse than what you went through last year? You’re in the family. You’re in a race car. Yep, you put wheels wrong both days, only magnified because the races were literally back to back. It’s happened to other drivers in back to back races… just ask them (I’d direct you to the Foyt and Andretti Autosport garages). Chin up AJ, you led the Indy 500 a week ago. Learn from this and make the most of your next time in the seat.

Takuma Sato. Taku had an unfortunate weekend, not much of his bad fortune on his own shoulders. Run out of fuel in race one and run out of room in race two. Mr. Sato and the Foyt crew must work for a better showing in the great state of Texas this weekend.

Chevy. There is really not much to say here. The bowtie bunch got schooled in their own backyard. They clearly had the engine to beat at Indy and have done pretty well on twisties this year as well. Let’s see how they rebound at TMS on Saturday night.

The ABC Crew. More specifically, Marty Reid. Marty was constantly asking questions of his booth-mates looking to pin the on track performance on back to back races. Is driver A being conservative today (Saturday) so he make it through Sunday? Did driver A (B, C, D, E…) crash (on Sunday) because of fatigue? Was the mass crash (on Sunday) caused by fatigue and lack of concentration? Simon Pagenaud’s crepes were a little off this morning (Sunday), do you think that was the result of having to make them two race mornings in a row? Thankfully, Scott Goodyear and “See-ment” Eddie Cheever didn’t fall for it… in fact, I almost detected a little annoyance in several of their emphatic “no” responses. ABC… please put Paul Page back in the booth… pretty pleeeeeeease?

And finally

The … Eh

Okay, we’ve been subjected to a steady stream of foreboding since the dual races were announced. From a fan’s perspective, pretty cool to have two races on TV, on two consecutive days.  Although the total 6 hours or so of total coverage over the weekend, for two RACES, barely equals the same amount of qualifying and race coverage on an average NASCAR or F1 weekend. The race saw some modest ratings gains over last year, but still.

That said, two exciting races in two days were great. The impending doom didn’t happen, although I’m sure there are few teams hustling to get ready for Texas, but frankly all the teams were going to have to do that anyway. For me… dual races are just okay. If they worked for the venue and the promoter and brought fans to the track… great. Personally, I’d rather have the races spaced out over the course of a season without significant gaps between.

So, close the books on the Dual in Detroit. Get your six shooters out for the Firestone 550 from Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night. Under the lights. In prime time. On network TV.

Dual in Detroit

The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit.

That’s got a nice ring to it.  Nice alliteration.  Descriptive.  Let’s hope everyone feels this way once the weekend is over.

I, for one, am concerned.  Drivers began voicing subtle disapproval of the dual idea as early as last year when the concept was first discussed.  The “racing action density” quotient might be the most convincing argument FOR the dual races.  Fans pay for the weekend and see two, full length races. Not a bad deal.  And then there is the TV exposure, thankfully going out over network broadcast.  (I just wish the ABC coverage was better… but leave that for another post.)

However, there is dramatic investment required by the teams and drivers to pack that much competition into a single weekend.  It’s not a completely foreign, unprecedented concept.  There are other racing series that run two races in a two day period, albeit lesser formulas.  The preparation time is shortened and the concentration time required is doubled.  Couple that with the physical demands of a street circuit and who knows what the result will be.  We’ll see what happens.  I’m skeptical on one hand and excited to see two races in two days on the other.

One thing is certain.  There are 100 championship points available this weekend and the driver standings could look dramatically different by Sunday evening.  What are the things to look for going into the Dual in Detroit.

Andretti Autosport.  The AA boys were disappointed with the final result at the Brickyard, but Marco did come away with the points lead.  And he’s on the verge of the top step of the podium.  A strong weekend could be good for the season championship.  In effect, it could be like cramming two good weekends into one and deliver a shot to the rest of the field in one weekend.

Honda vs. Chevy.  Will Honda rebound from a disappointing Indy and frankly, a slightly disappointing season, to once again steal a result from the hometown boys at Chevy?  You know they’ll be trying.

TCGR.  How will the Ganassi boys fair this weekend?  Not a stellar year thus far, but Dixie led every track-disintegrating lap last year at Belle Isle.  The team, along with Honda, need a good weekend, but with the short preparation, a new track configuration and the effect of the dual races, they have their work cut out for them.  There’s no team any more capable of turning their fortune though.

Panther Racing.  The DRR contingent is done for the season.  Hildebrand is at home.  Briscoe gets an audition.  Panther will get lots of attention this weekend for everything going on off the track.  It’s going to be tough for Briscoe to make any noise on the track.

Belle Isle Circuit.  From all accounts, this place has been made over with great care.  No repeat of the debacle of 2012.

Weather.  Specifically rain.  The forecast doesn’t look good.  Rain could be a factor all three days, which could have some interesting affects on the outcome of the races… and the points.

So, set back and get ready for two, count ‘em TWO races this weekend.  Let’s hope this experiment in scheduling results in applause from teams, drivers and fans in all the Monday morning recaps.

As you were.

19 Cars, 134 Green Laps, & Aero Kits

It’s Friday morning, a few short minutes before the first and only true practice session for to the “Dual in Detroit”.  I booted up Race Control on IndyCar.com so I could steal a look at the proceedings while I’m doing the day job.  As Live Timing & Scoring lumbered to life for another IndyCar weekend, I was pleasantly surprised when the final results popped up in the browser window, displaying the final lap of the “500” frozen in time.  I must admit… I smiled.  Thanks TK, I haven’t thought this much about the result from Indy in years.

Something struck me as I scrolled up and down the grid.  I knew it already, I had even thought about and chatted about it with other race fans during the week.  There were 19 cars on the lead lap at the end of the race last weekend.  That’s pretty cool by itself, but that only tells the partial story of how good the racing at Indy was this year.  Not only were there 19 cars on the lead lap, those cars were essentially in a pretty tight group much of the race.  We’re not talking pack racing at Talladega, we’re talking a large pack of cars, one, two, three and (at times) four wide, all racing for positions up and down the order.  What makes this even more interesting is the fact that the race was green for 134 consecutive laps, between Takuma Sato’s spin (lap 60) and Graham Rahal’s crash (lap 194).

In years before, even after as few as 20-30 laps, the leaders were beginning to sneak up on the rear wing of the back markers.  Sadly, it could become a single file parade with the occasional pass here and there.  Not this past Sunday.  The majority of the teams are quite evenly matched.  Combine that with the fact that the DW12 punches a huge hole in the air, the field can and did stay close.  The racing happened all over the track, up and down the field with the car behind having the distinct advantage.

This made me start thinking about the apparent introduction of “aero kits”.  Here’s my fervent plea:  “Derrick Walker … please don’t screw this up!”

I realize many believe innovation should return as a hallmark of IndyCar racing.  I’d be lying if that wasn’t my own personal inclination.  Many of us want to see “different” cars on track.  However, do we really want to return to the days of one or two teams dominating the rest of the field?  The days when your favorite driver, regardless of his skill was just a prop to fill up the grid.

If aero kits can keep the racing close AND introduce some innovation AND differentiate the appearance of the cars on track, then maybe, and I say MAYBE, let’s give it a shot.  But let’s honestly ask ourselves… will the appearance really be noticeable at speed, on track?  I fully understand the arguments about watching a spec series.  IndyCar is a spec series now.  Guess what, it will still be a spec series with aero kits.  Let’s be honest though.  A spec series with the right formula, can product some pretty great racing.  Last Sunday’s race is proof.

So the final question in this little rant:  given the current, tenuous financial position of much of the field, should the series impose the additional financial burden related to aero kits?  From where I sit, I’m just not sure tweaking the spec is worth the cost, particularly at the expense of diminishing the competitiveness of the current on track product.

Congratulations TK on your Indy 500 victory!  (I’m just not tired of writing that yet!!)

As you were.

Reflections on the 2013 Indy 500

The 97th Indy 500 can be described in three words:  “what a race”.  Ladies and gentlemen, THAT’S what a car race should look like and more importantly, feel like.

I have purposely delayed writing this piece so the race had a little more time to steep and marinade.  It would be too easy to jump on the euphoria that followed Tony Kanaan’s first Indy 500 victory.  TK’s victory was well deserved, but more on that in a bit.  I just didn’t want to jump the gun and share the obvious, “what an amazing race” story.  Now, after a few days, what follows is largely positive thoughts about a great race.  I must admit, this has been about the longest “500 afterglow” that I can personally remember.  Usually that dreaded feeling about the next 500 being 12 months away sets in pretty quickly.  Not so this year.  I can still happily smell the mixture of county fair and burning ethanol.  The sounds are still faint in the back of my mind.  And that’s a good thing.

As always, there is a lot of ground to cover after the culmination of the month of May.  Almost too much, so I have broken it down into surprises, disappointments, some “thoughts”, and finally … “joys”.  This race created much happiness and joy.

Surprises

In no particular order, some things I found surprising by the time the twin checkers flew.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing.  There is no joy in Ganassi-ville.  And I’m talking about the A team here.  Chip’s boys were never in this race.  Dario and Dixie were never really much of a factor throughout the month.  Is this a Honda thing?  Has the bar been raised by the likes of Andretti Autosport and others?  Who knows, but it’s safe to assume, Chip was not a happy camper Sunday evening.  It’s also safe to assume, this team will not give up.

Honda.  No race day miracles this year.  Enough said.

Justin Wilson.  Justin is an accomplished driver who keeps giving you the feeling he is nowhere near perfecting his racecraft.  He laid down a steady, solid performance on Sunday, coaxing fifth out of a Honda powered machine.  As heated as this race was from beginning to end, Justin could have easily become the benefactor of a four car pile-up on the last restart.  Well done Justin.

Charlie Kimball.  After spending the prior 24 hours or more being treated for some sort of “killer bug”, Charlie overcame a poorly running car early in the race, to finish in the top ten.  We missed you at the public drivers meeting Charlie.

Carlos Munoz.  Carlos was my top pick for this year’s Kevin Coogan Award.  (I know, it’s Cogan, but I’ll never get AJ’s pronunciation out of my head.)  After the grass cutting pass he made on his teammate early in practice, my suspicion was he had a little too much car in his rookie attempt at the 500.  He was blazing fast, but he was right in the middle of the front row.  However, Carlos drove a masterful race.  He was never out of or far off the front of the pack; an incredible drive by the young Colombian.

Katherine Legge.  There were times during the weekend, that the Angie’s List car was just plain flying.  With very little practice, Katherine showed some exceptional speed on Carb Day and during the race.  No, she didn’t post a great result and she did brush the wall and she was pretty fearless dropping into turn one on the nose of her competitors, but she showed she can post some speed.  Well done Katherine.

Disappointments

Race Day Vibe.  There was something just a little off Sunday morning walking on and around the track and infield.  It just felt a little subdued compared to previous years.  I’m not saying it was awful, just down a bit.  Maybe it was the lack of sunshine and the cool temperatures.  Maybe it was the fact that a significant number of fans were in line on Georgetown Road waiting to get through security.  That feeling went away quickly once the green flag flew.

Ed Carpenter.  Ed received a nice ovation during introductions.  The first 40 or so laps, there was no doubt Ed was a strong contender, but then he just disappeared into the middle of the pack.  He finished in the top ten, but a disappointing result after such a strong month of May.

IMS Security.  Two points.  By mid-morning the lines on Georgetown Road stretched as far as you could see.  There was a lack of creativity in designing the physical structure of many of the main track entrances and a lack of foresight in not publicly warning people to get to the track earlier than normal.  After the Boston Marathon tragedy, the track had to screen the bags and coolers streaming into the track.  That brings me to my second point.  Screen the bags and coolers.  I arrived very early as normal.  The cooler screening was simply unzipping the top and flipping it open for 3 seconds.  “Thanks very much and enjoy the race” was my security check.  If you’re going to put the fans through the line, do a better job of actually examining the contents of the coolers.  On both points, IMS needs to re-think and re-engineer the approach to security for 2014.

J.R. Hildebrand.  Ugh.  Bad day for J.R.  One might have thought J.R. would have filed away that whole “last-lap-high-exiting-four” experience from the 2011 finish.  With Chevy power and Panther engineering (and history), J.R. should have had a much better day.

TV Ratings.  One of the best races in the history of the event and no one saw it!  Can you say missed opportunity?  A topic for another day.

Thoughts

DW12.  Okay… I’ve warmed a lot to the looks of the DW12 and I much prefer it in super speedway trim, but I’m still not crazy about the overall look of the new car.  It’s sort of an unfortunate love child of the old Dallara chassis and a prototype sports car chassis.  The appeal varies based on the viewing angle.  From the front, not bad.  But from above, the wedge shape and the rear of the car and the bumpers… just not crazy about it and I don’t think “aero kits” will change much.  However… it’s one redeeming quality is – it’s RACY!!

Honda vs. Chevy.  The crew at HPD have to be scratching their heads.  The bowtie crowd had them virtually outclassed at the Speedway.  (for the season Chevy is 4 for 5)  Maybe the weather had something to say in terms of the horsepower vs. aero efficiency and the resulting speed.  A hot day and maybe the Honda runners perform like last year.  Regardless, Honda got smoked this year.  Will there be any rumblings with some of the Honda teams if things don’t get better?

Finish under yellow.  I’ll make this short and sweet.  Green-White-Checker?  No.

Fuel strategy race.  Sunday was a real race!  It wasn’t a fuel conservation race.  Everyone in contention (and there were A LOT of cars in contention) came in with about 20 laps to go, took their fuel and was told to put the hammer down.  Undoubtedly, this is the BEST scenario for any car race.  There was a ton of reluctance to lead in the early stages, because the car out front was plowing the hole in the air and burning fuel.  Thankfully, that was not a factor at the end of the day.  We can only hope for more races where fuel conservation is not a consideration.

And finally… a few words about JOY

Pure joy.  In the cockpit of the 11 car.  In the pit stand.  In virtually every seat in the grandstands.  In Victory Lane.  Tony Kanaan, the winner of the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500!  How nice it is to write that sentence.  The loudest roar during intros, cheers over the roar of the engines at every pass for the lead, and finally at the twin checkers.  TK is without a doubt the people’s champion.  Look no further than the number of fans remaining in their seat waiting for TK’s victory lap in the pace car.  A well deserved race win.  TK went out and snatched this win from his competitors on the last restart and he knew what he might be doing in the process.  A great race with a great result… and tons of joy that followed.

This may not have been a historic race, but it is certainly a race for the ages.  The racing and the winner made this day.  A day many will remember and talk about for years to come.

Thank you TK and congratulations on a great Indy 500 victory!

2013 Indy 500 Predictions – pt 4

One last installment in the prediction series on the eve of the 97th running of the greatest spectacle in racing.

Dale Coyne Racing

This journeyman team has steadily moved from back marker to strong mid-pack runner that, with the addition of the talented Justin Wilson, is a serious threat to win on most weekends.  The question is, with three cars in the race this year, have they diluted the ability to deliver or gained insight from the additional laps and engineering feedback.  With the limited track time available to Pippa Mann, be concerned with the former.  Win potential:  B-

Justin Wilson. The lanky Englishman is a talented racer. He’s developed into a threat anywhere the DCR hauler shows up, having shown well and won on both road courses and ovals. Justin is no stranger to the Speedway.  He starts his sixth race on Sunday in the middle of the pack.  Will the Honda’s show up and give the Brit a shot? Answer = yes.  Justin shouldn’t be counted as a favorite, but with some racing luck, he has a chance to score his best finish in the 500.  Win potential:  B-

Ana Beatriz. Ana will begin her fourth 500 from the middle of the 10th row.  DCR will put her in a good car and provide an excellent chance to improve on her best finish at Indy.  Look for a strong race with a solid finish from the talented Brazilian.  Win potential:  C

Pippa Mann. Talented and tenacious. Pippa has worked tirelessly to get back in the seat of an IndyCar. After only a single race in AutoGP last year, Pippa has fulfilled her quest to get back in the 500. Hopefully Cyclops Gear realizes what an amazing talent engaged in Pippa. Consider Pippa a virtual rookie behind the wheel at Indianapolis; a talented rookie, but a rookie.  However, don’t be surprised by a good result on Sunday.  This young lady can accomplish anything. She’s in the race isn’t she? Win potential: C

A. J. Foyt Enterprises

What a start to 2013 for the A. J. Foyt team. The combination of Takuma Sato and A.J. had everyone in the paddock doing a double take, not to mention anyone who follows the IndyCar series. What a combination so far. Points leaders coming into Indianapolis with a solid drive, one win and a second with Sato and a talented rookie on board for the 500, the ABC Supply boys have a spring in their step and a real chance to visit victory lane. Win potential: A

Takuma Sato. Taku exhilarated the crowd with his charge to the front and last lap pass attempt in the 500 in 2012. He had flashes speed last year, but no results.  The unlikely pairing with the Foyt team is proving to be this season’s early and exciting brilliance.  A superior drive to first at Long Beach and spirited racing with Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe may just be a taste of what Taku can do in 2013. He’s got speed, bravery and the killer instinct to win the 500.   Win potential: A-

Conor Daly. The young man who literally grew up at the Speedway is unquestionably talented. And what a breath of air to witniess the wonderment and reverence for IMS he displays every time he steps out of the car and in front of the microphone. Conor is a pure rookie.  This will be his first IndyCar start, but he’s been racing and winning against exceptional competition all over the world. Watch the jitters early and wait for him to settle into the rhythm of the race. If he he makes it to that point, don’t be surprised by any result he turns in, ‘cause the kid has a winners instinct. Win potential: C+

Target Chip Ganassi Racing

The self-made nemesis of Team Penske, the Ganassi boys are perennial favorites now to win at the Brickyard. Chip’s built an exceptionally talented race team, who expects to win every time they take the car off the hauler. Honda will be right there with Chip, just like last year. Win potential: A+

Dario Franchitti. The three time winner has become one of the best in the field, at Indianapolis and virtually every other track where IndyCar races. Dario shows few signs of slowing down. Don’t let the win drought since last year’s race dampen his chances of another victory this year.  Dario has demonstrated his ability to race through adversity to win. And you know he wants to edge Castroneves for the next spot in the 4 timers club.  Win potential: A+

Scott Dixon. Dixie starts his 11th 500 in 2013, all for Chip Ganassi, all but two finishes in the top 10, with 5 in the top 5. Dixon could easily be in his teammate Franchitti’s shoes… if not for Franchitti. Dixon will be near the front on Sunday. Win potential: A-

Charlie Kimball. Charlie needs results this season, the third with Ganassi. Charlie has qualified and raced well in 2013. So far this May, Charlie has drawn little attention. He’s plugging along, but not showing signs of charging to the front on Sunday.  However, any driver with TCGR has a better than average chance to win. Win potential: B-

Ryan Briscoe. The one off at the Speedway re-unites the talented Aussie with TCGR. Last year’s pole sitter would like nothing better than to pass a Penske car in the final laps and score a victory ahead of his old crew. Is there incentive there?  Yes. Can he pull it off? The race must fall his way and his (normally ALMS) crew must provide flawless service all day.  Win potential: B+

Andretti Autosport

The AA boys are without question on top of their game this year. They’ve had a flawless month of May, with all five drivers in the Fast Six in qualifying. They have huge amounts of data about running in traffic, they’re their own traffic jam with five cars. Will a chrome nose poke it’s way into victory lane? There’s no team with a greater chance. Win potential: A+

Marco Andretti. There is maturity and calm that seems to surround Marco so far this season. The results have ensued. He’s demonstrated the same speed he had last year, but with his new mental outlook, Marco will have the RC Cola car at the front. Win potential: A

James Hinchcliffe. The mayor owns two of four victories of the 2013 season. Last year’s front row starter looks to improve his 6th place finish. Starting his third race, second for AA… maybe the third time is the charm for the personable and talented Canadian. Win potential: A-

Ryan Hunter-Reay. Last year’s season champion proved he can win on any circuit. Although he’s been way up (with a win at Alabama) and way down so far this season, RHR would like nothing better than to bring the number 1 (28) home at the front. He’s got the speed and the team to get it done. Win potential: A

EJ Viso. Laugh at all the jokes you want about EJ’s crash bills, he’s shown he can pedal the AA car. He seems to be in an environment where he can get results. He’s shown speed all month. Be sure to keep an eye on the Citgo car on Sunday. Win potential: B

Penske Racing

The Captain and his racing empire has 15 wins at the Brickyard. There is no other team any more capable of putting a car in victory lane. Enough said. Win potential: A+

Helio Castroneves. HCN starts his 13th trip around the Brickyard on Sunday, this time with the added pressure of Dario trying to beat him to the exclusive 4-timers club. Helio has had a solid but somewhat quiet month May. Do not expect him to be quiet on Sunday. Win potential: A+

Will Power. Everyone knows the trials and tribulations of Will Power on ovals. They just seem to have something in for the talented Aussie. However, Will has shown tremendous speed this month. One has to wonder when… or if… he ever completely exorcises his oval demons. Win potential: A-

AJ Allmendinger. Yes, AJ is a rookie at Indy and IndyCar. But AJ posted some great results in Champ Car, and he has shown speed all month. His start in the middle of the second row will throw him in the deep end right away, but expect him to handle it well. Roger Penske doesn’t do charity rides. He puts people in his cars that he expects to contend for a win. AJ could be a dark horse on Sunday. Win potential: A-

It’s the night before the 500. Time to get up early and drive to the track and have Clabber Girl biscuites and watch the soldiers march and sing the songs and give the command and go racing. Come on race morning!

Enjoy what should be another great race from the greatest racing venue in the world!