Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Thriller in the LBC

I was busy this afternoon registering for my wedding -- yes, it's happening July 26th -- so I caught the race on DVR. While I'm happy for the chance to catch the race on tape, I'm bummed I don't get to share the experience with my friends. Hope to do just that at Barber.

Anyway, so much happened today that I'm going away from my normal post-race post (off sequence if you will) and will just go with a brain dump of thoughts and ideas. I mean, is there really any other way?

So let's get started:

1) Make no mistake, this was Big Boy Racing. Tough drivers, rough, constantly changing surfaces that led to physical exhaustion and quite a bit of tension. Temporary street courses have become like a night at your local short track...lots of broken parts, lots of fired up drivers, and tons of passionate racing. Everybody in the field drove hard today, and everyone earned what they got. That's what this series has become the last couple of years. If you think about it, there are really no "back markers" in the IndyCar series, sure, there are drivers of different abilities throughout the field, but over half the field is capable of winning, even more than that are podium worthy, and the rest can get to the top 10.

2) I loved the bad blood that came out of the race, and there was lots of it. Half of the Field vs. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power vs. Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon vs. Justin Wilson, Graham Rahal vs. Whoever Dares Try to Pass The Chosen One. It goes on and on. I think we're all adults here and would never want to see fists start flying -- although a Clint Bowyer-inspired run through the paddock would be hilarious -- but I think it's a good thing for guys to have a little bit of an edge to each other. While I like the fact that most of the guys in the series are very friendly and get along with each other, it's fun to shake things up, too.

3) Mike Conway proved once again that Ed Carpenter made a huge get when he signed him to drive the twisties this year. So many people thought his career was all but over when he stepped away from the car at Fontana a couple years back and said he wasn't going to drive ovals any more, but the opposite is true as he is always in demand. It's too bad he and his team made a couple of mistakes at St. Pete or he could be a two-time winner this year.

4) The crash. What the hell was Hunter-Reay thinking? That's probably a place you don't think of passing someone when it is actually a street and people are driving down it at 35 mph. His "I saw an opening" excuse doesn't pass muster, and when you add to the fact that his own teammate (James Hinchcliffe) didn't even think about defending him, you know that he really, really screwed up. My own personal credo is that you never wreck the leader of the race. Never. That was a rookie mistake made by someone who has over 100 IndyCar races in his pocket. Leader Josef Newgarden was on cold tires and would have been an easy pass a couple of corners later. He had dominated the race to that point, why get so impatient?

5) Speaking of Newgarden, I hope he gets a bit of luck soon. That race was out there for him to win, and it would've been a huge deal for Josef and his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team in so many ways if it would've happened. I'm on board with him winning sometime this season, though, he's driven through the field two races in a row and will seal the deal sooner or later.

6) I don't know about you, but I'm getting a bit sick of Power's excuses when he wrecks someone. This whole "oh, gee, man...I don't know...man, I just...I just didn't see him (and so on and so on)" is wearing thin. He pulled the same crap when he drilled Dixon at Baltimore last year. For a guy who wins a lot of races and is a championship contender, he wrecks a lot of guys then spends a lot of time claiming innocence. I might start calling him Bill Laimbeer. If you watched the NBA in the 80s and 90s, Bill Laimbeer would cheap shot guys or start fights, then back away like "who, me?" when people called him on it.

7) Pardon my language, but Carlos Munoz is the s--t. So is Oriol Servia. That is all.

8) When Jack Hawksworth was announced as Bryan Herta Autosport's driver a couple of months ago, there was a lot of angst on the Twitter about the move. I know a lot of it wasn't personal, the great thing about IndyCar is that we as fans have personal relationships with drivers and that skews our judgement sometimes. But two races in it looks like a great move. We'll see what goes down when we get to the oval part of the schedule, but early on he looks to be a keeper.

9) It was actually a good weekend for all the rookies as Munoz was on the podium, Hawksworth ran well and Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Huertas finished in the Top 10.

10) Long Beach proved once again that it is truly special.

That's it for now. Is this season off to a heck of a start or what?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

St. Pete's In The Books

So what did everyone think of yesterday's race? Overall I thought it was pretty solid, with some good passing, a nice, long green run and very little controversy.

Well, there is one that some will be talking about for a couple of days. With just over 30 laps to go in the 110-lap event, race leader Will Power inexplicably slowed, causing a backup in the field and sending Jack Hawksworth (who was having a great run in his first IndyCar race) into Marco Andretti, knocking both out of the race.

With the new rules on restarts (which I don't completely understand fully, I'll admit), this may not be the last time something like this happens. Since the leader can no longer just take off coming out of the last corner, which led to some ugly restarts in the past, some might resort to a bit of gamesmanship to give them some sort of advantage. Perhaps that needs to be addressed in the form of a minimum speed coming to the green, but I'll leave that to Derrick Walker.

So, as always here at 15DIM, let's run through the Top 5 and some other odds and ends.

Winner: Will Power. You don't say? The way he picked up from where he left off in 2013 (winning three of the final five races), it seems like he didn't have an off-season. Outside of surrendering the lead when he pitted, WP led from Lap 30 (when he took the lead from polesitter Takuma Sato) on in registering his 20th win in IndyCar (he also won twice in Champ Car). It's pretty simple...when it comes to a road or street course, you can't let this guy get to the point, because in that situation he is one of the best front runners in the business.

Runner-up: Ryan Hunter-Reay. RHR seemed pretty pumped after the race, and as he said afterwards, you can't go wrong piling up points early in the season. With the ovals and twisties worth almost the same amount of points this year, you have to do two things: be consistent and show up for the 500-milers. The main thing is to just get off to a good start. When RHR won the title two years ago, he finished third here. Last year? P18, one of nine races in which he finished 18th or worse, which is how a guy with two wins and six total podiums finishes seventh in points.

Third: Helio Castroneves. Helio put on a happy face, but didn't seem all that pleased with his finish, no doubt a little miffed at his teammate for his shenanigans on the restart. Still, he begins his quest to put a heartbreaking finish to the season behind him by picking up a podium finish in the opener. Remember how I said last year that the street race doubleheaders put the championship on a tee for Will Power? The more I think about it, the more ovals do the same for Helio this year.

Fourth/fifth: Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud. I'm lumping the two of these guys together because I have pretty much the same thing to say for both of them, as they had pretty quiet days where they ran near the front and kept their noses clean. The Champ's day was pretty ho-hum, while Simon made a nice jump up from his 14th-place starting position.

Notables: Josef Newgarden had one of the better drives of the race, starting last in P22 and moving up to P9 by the end of the day. He was probably one of the faster cars on the track by the end of the race...Mikhail Aleshin was the highest-finishing rookie, coming home P12...What happened to Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe? Rahal had a great start to the race, quickly moving up 12 spots, then just stalled out and started going backwards before finishing P14. Hinch ran last all day (the result of what appears to be some sort of electronics gremlin) and was out of it from the drop of the green, and only moved up to his P19 finishing position via attrition. Of course, given his feast-or-famine results of last year, he will probably win at Long Beach in two weeks.

JPM: Juan Pablo Montoya's return to IndyCar was a bit (to some) underwhelming, but being realistic, his 15th place finish sounds about right. Despite his talent, he still has a lot of work to do, not only in learning the car, but stepping up to the competition level. It's a little tougher this time around.

TV broadcast: I thought Allen Bestwick was tremendous. Though he referred to himself as being "new to IndyCar", he seemed like he did his prep work and was on point all day. I think he really impressed everyone in the series (and lots of fans too) when he showed up for spring training at Barber to learn as much as he could.

I'm not a fan of Scott Goodyear's, but he seemed a little better yesterday. He's been in the booth for so long but just has never seemed like he ever said what he wanted to say, if that makes sense. I thought his focus on Newgarden and his technical explainations for driving lines and passing techniques near the end of the race was tremendous. His game seemed a little raised with Bestwick at his side.

I'm still not sure quite what Eddie Cheever provides to the broadcast, and I think that he and Goodyear do get in each others' way sometimes. But he did provide an interesting moment when he admitted to Goodyear that he doesn't like talking about the Indy 500 with him because Cheever won and Goodyear had so many heartbreaking finishes.

So now it's on to Long Beach, one of the cornerstones of the series, and one of the most interesting of the street courses on the schedule. Not only that, it's a track where several drivers such as Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Juan Pablo Montoya and Nelson Piquet (F1) got their first career wins, and in two of the last three years, Mike Conway and Takuma Sato have picked up their first IndyCar wins as well. Long Beach is always full of surprises, and it looks like thanks to the folks of that great city it will be on the schedule for at least another three years.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

2014 Predictions

Wow, is it really that time again? Is it really time to go racing?

It's hard to believe that we are finally ready to line it up at St. Pete this weekend. While the off-season went pretty quickly for me in a personal sense, in a racing sense it has seemed to last forever. In fact, my off-season lasted a couple of weeks longer than everyone else because I was on a flight to London (and eventually Milan) during the Fontana race and haven't had the chance to watch the whole thing since.

Speaking of, if you want to read about my trip to Monza, go here. That was a memorable day for me, and I'm happy that so many of you have chosen to read it. In fact, it's the third-most read post ever in this space, behind, oddly enough, my anti-Tony George post and a feature about Buddy Lazier. Really.

Anyway, I prognosticated in this space about this same time last year, and actually got a couple of things right, and came close on a few others. Read that one here. Happily, my prediction of Tony Kanaan winning the 500 came to fruition, as did my thought that James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud would each win their first races. In fact, Hinch even won three.

So what's going to happen in the IndyCar series this year? One thing's for sure, it should be exciting. So let's throw a few ideas out there.

Series champion(s): Ed Carpenter/Mike Conway. OK, part of this is tongue-in-cheek, but given the new points system that puts more emphasis on 500-milers, and given that each driver is an ace in his respective discipline (Ed on ovals and Mike on the twisties), it is wholly believable that these two guys could combine to post the most points in the 20 car this year.

But since the series wouldn't let them cut the Vanderbilt Cup in half and take it home with them, I'm going with Scott Dixon to win the title for the second straight year. Let's face it, the guy is in the absolute apex of his career, and the only reason he didn't win the title running away last year was because he had four finishes of P15 or worse. By contrast, Helio Castroneves and Pagenaud, the next two in the standings, had just two apiece.

Series runner up: Will Power. Notice these two guys are flipped from last year. Power's season was dreadful, and a lot of his bad luck wasn't his fault (well, except for Baltimore) and he rallied to win three races (Sonoma, Houston 2 and Fontana) to close out the season. His win at Fontana was the biggest of the three, I think, because his kryptonite has always been the ovals, but with the points now weighted more towards them, he has to perform to make this work.

While I'm at it, a quick note about the points. I was originally bat crap crazy against it, but acceptance is rolling in. Of course, much of that is thanks to the calming presence of Steve Wittich, one of the voices of reason in the IndyCar community, who pointed out that it only brings the total oval points in line with the twisties. I've actually wanted that to happen for a while, but I wish it were spread across ALL ovals, and not just the 500-milers.

The series has a definite gamut of ovals, measuring 7/8-mile (Iowa), 1 mile (Milwaukee), 1 1/2 miles (Texas), 2 miles (Fontana) and 2 1/2 miles (Indy and Pocono). Oval track driving is one big discipline but it takes a special kind of talent to perform on tracks that are five different lengths and have different bankings and nuances. So that's that.

Anyway.

Other title contenders: Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud. Every one of these guys were great at times last year, with Helio on track to win his first title until a bad weekend in Houston. The rest just needed to have some better luck and a little more consistency. Marco has to win a race this year, doesn't he? TK hasn't been a championship favorite the last couple of years, but looks to be revitalized in the 10 car for Ganassi.

First time winners club: Josef Newgarden. Josef took some huge strides forward last year, and I think he seals the deal in 2014.

Rookie of the Year: Carlos Munoz. Munoz impressed me with his front-row start and second place finish at Indy, but what really gave me pause that this guy could be a good one was his performance in Toronto when he jumped in Ryan Briscoe's Panther Racing car at the last minute and drove to a 17th-place finish, which was impressive given the circumstances. Now, that doesn't mean Munoz is going to win a race or even finish in the top-10 in points, because there are some absolute studs on the track with him, and while he should do fine he's going to be learning every weekend.

Comeback Driver of the Year: Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe hasn't caught much of a break the last couple of years, has he? Out of a job with Penske after 2012 despite winning the pole at Indy and the race at Sonoma, he drove sports cars most of last year with forays into IndyCar at Indy with Ganassi (where he finished 12th) and a few races with Panther, but scored just 100 points in eight races. Back full-time with Ganassi, he could have some outstanding results.

Comeback Driver of the Year 2: Juan Pablo Montoya. When it was first announced that JPM was leaving Cup (well, he got the boot at Ganassi but I digress) for a ride with Penske, I was a little skeptical. While I thought his presence in the series would be at worst entertaining as hell, and trust me, it will be, I wasn't sure of his passion for it. But given the way he has trimmed down (he looks like an IndyCar driver now!) and has been fast in preseason testing, he's here for the right reasons and wants to win.

Two other guys I want to mention: Justin Wilson and Sebastien Bourdais. I feel like a prediction column isn't complete without mentioning these two guys. Wilson gets a nod for the fact that he finished sixth in points for Dale Coyne Racing last year (an amazing feat in itself) and has a reputation that keeps growing as one of the most diverse drivers on the planet, and Bourdais because he moves from Dragon Racing (an organization that I thought never took things completely seriously) to KV Racing, and seems to have a little more spring in his step this year. Look for both to finish in the top-10 in the points this year.

Make or Break year: Graham Rahal. With National Guard on board and an engineer like Bill Pappas in his corner, Graham is out of excuses as to why he can't run up front and win. I hope it happens, he's become a very open, active voice on social media, and seems to have added an extra bit of maturity. It would be a great benefit to the series if Graham was running up front. Now if we could just get Marco Andretti to stop being so shy and follow his lead! I don't know if that will ever happen...Marco is Marco and he likes his privacy. Oh well.

And finally!

Indy 500 winner: Kurt Busch. Oh my God, please know I'm kidding! Let me try this again...

Indy 500 winner: James Hinchcliffe. When I called Kanaan as the winner of the 500 last year, I wrote: "TK will go into this space until he gives me a reason not to put him here, either by winning the race or retiring." TK no longer goes in this space (although I'd love to see him win again), and Hinch takes his spot under the same criteria.

I dunno, but something tells me this could be a huge season for IndyCar. With the competition from front to back about as good as it can get, activation from an incredible sponsor in Verizon, a deeper commitment from ABC/ESPN, Paul Page on radio and Allen Bestwick and Leigh Diffey running the TV, guys interested in doing the Indy 500/Coke 600 double and the new points, we won't be short of storylines.

So as Dolvett Quince, my favorite trainer from the TV show Biggest Loser, says: "Let's go to work!"


On Dario and Jim



Over the last few years, the announcement of who will drive the pace car for the Indy 500 should've been followed by rimshot, because it always sounded like it was a punchline to a joke.

Through the first 85 years or so of the 500, the car was typically driven by someone with an open wheel connection, like a former driver or contributor to the sport. But right around the turn of the century (this one), it became more of a "celebrity" thing, which to me was kind of an embarrassment. In the last five years alone, racing legends such as Josh Duhamel, Robin Roberts, Guy Fieri and Jim Harbaugh have been behind the wheel, and each one of them made me shake my head.

And don't forget that in 2011 Donald Trump was tapped to drive, but thankfully was "fired" and replaced by AJ Foyt at the last minute given the unpopularity of that choice.

But this year? Man, they got it right, and in a big way. Three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time series champion Dario Franchitti will take the field to the green flag on May 25, and I couldn't be happier.

Well, I'd be pretty happy that day anyway because race day falls on my birthday, but you know what I'm saying.

Hopefully that restarts the tradition of putting real "stars" behind the wheel, and at the same time, it gives the fans the opportunity to give Dario the sendoff to his career that he deserves. Like many, I was horrified by his accident in Houston last October, and was sad the day he announced that he was retiring because of his injuries.

It's always tough when an injury forces any athlete to retire, because it would be nice if everyone had the opportunity to go out on their terms. You want to retire because you just think it's time, and he didn't get that chance. And at the same time, no one, not the fans, the drivers or the series, got the chance to show him an appreciation for a career well done.

While I don't put Dario on my Rushmore of open wheel racing, he is a true giant of the sport. His legacy will be one that lives on long after all of us are gone. There is no doubt about that.

I know I have been critical of him in the past, but I started to warm up to him after his third win two years ago. Then I covered the race at Milwaukee and spent some time in the interview room with him (though I didn't ask any questions!), and really came away with the thought...wow, this is a SUPER nice guy. While I didn't openly root for him, I had a newfound respect for him as a person and a driver.

Not only that, any time he has a conversation about racing, you can just hear the passion for the sport in his voice. He truly loves racing, he appreciates the history of the sport, and for sure when it comes to Indy, he totally gets it. It is a very good thing that he will be involved with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and the series as a whole. He could be one of the next great ambassadors of the sport, and I would love to hear him give TV a shot sometime too.

So count me among those who will be standing and cheering like crazy when he brings the cars to life in May. He deserves that from all of us.

Another person I will be cheering for will be Jim Nabors, who will end a 42-year tradition (with a couple of missing years along the way) when he sings "Back Home Again In Indiana" for the final time this May. Now 83 years old, it's just too tough for him to make the trip from his home in Hawaii. Completely understandable, by the way.

Still, it won't be the same without him. Since 1987 he has missed the race just twice, in 2007 and 2012, and his rendition of a song that was first written in 1917 will be remembered forever. It's a true institution and for me, it's one of the final moments before the race when I start to get the feeling that "it's on".

To hear it on TV is one thing, to hear it as part of a large crowd, and to see the balloons released skyward as the song draws to a close, is, to me, the second-most moving thing behind the playing of "Taps", which is also an unbelievable experience. But when Jim belts out the final notes of the song the roof just goes off the place...it's pretty crazy.

Of course, thoughts have moved on to who will be his successor. Part of me feels like this tradition should retire with him, but what takes its place? It will be a difficult decision, and one IMS needs to think long and hard about. This is one decision that should not be made with marketing, buzz or television in mind. 

I know this sounds hokey, but the thing that makes the song resonate is because Jim Nabors delivers it with honor and humility. He is a kind and gentle man, and he sings that song for us, because he has a beautiful voice that he likes to share with others. The song is done absolutely without ego or a desire for attention, and I even wonder if he accepts any compensation for doing it. Jim sings the song because he can and I think he likes the fact that he can make so many people happy. I really believe deep in my heart it is that simple for him, and that's why it resonates for all of us so much.

So the person that carries on the tradition must possess those traits too, and that will be where the difficulty in the decision will like, because there are very few people like him. And he will be missed.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More Double Discussion

With talk of Kurt Busch planning to run the Indy 500/Coke 600 double May 25 still in a lot of people’s minds, the media continues bringing up the idea of IndyCar drivers doing it as well.

Yesterday there was a story written by the AP’s Jenna Fryer that discussed that topic and included some pretty good quotes from both Scott Dixon and Cup rookie Kyle Larson. Unfortunately, on the Sports Illustrated website it was headlined “Are IndyCar Drivers Afraid of the Double?”. 

You can read it here.

But really? Scared? Come on.

Now, Jenna went on Twitter and lamented that headline, and I’m in her corner on this one. There have been more than a few occasions where I’ve facepalmed myself after reading the headline to a story that I have written. While I understand headlines are to attract a read, there have been more than several occasions in my writing career where the headline was totally out of context when compared to what I had written.

Anyway, there was a lot of talk about Dixon (or even Tony Kanaan) doing said double. Not only does it sound like a good fit considering the resume of either, it also makes sense because Chip Ganassi’s sponsors (Target) and engine/car manufacturer (Chevy) makes it an easy fit.

Still, I’m mixed about this…very mixed. On one hand, I think it would be a great opportunity for the right driver. I also think that the lines between the series getting more crossed and drivers from different series becoming friends would help someone going into that situation as they would have immediate respect. 

Guys like Dixon, Kanaan or even James Hinchcliffe come to my mind as guys who have the adaptability and past experience in other types of cars (especially sports cars and even V8 Supercars) to do a pretty decent job.

Therein lies the issue, though. I think all of them can do a pretty decent job, but is that really acceptable?

Let me put it this way: Kurt Busch is going to jump in an IndyCar and is really in a win/win situation. Short of crashing out in the first corner of the first lap, no matter what happens his reputation as a versatile driver will be even more enhanced. And if he runs all 500 miles and finishes, say, in the top 15, that would be called a success.

Regardless of what he does (unless he acts like an ass in doing it), I’m going to admire Kurt for making the effort and trying his hand on this side of the fence. I think he is going to go back to the NASCAR paddock and say “guys, it isn’t as easy as you think it is”.

But what about the other way around? Say an IndyCar driver went to Charlotte and rode around and finished in 30th place? How would that be received? Personally, I think it would be pretty awesome watching an IndyCar driver in the Coke 600 field, regardless of where they finished. Doing the double like running a marathon: it’s all about finishing. Racing 1,100 miles in two cities and under two different racing disciplines in a single day is one sweet accomplishment.

Cup drivers would respect it, and so would true race fans. I just wonder what the average Cup fan would think, and whether or not that would be a good thing. Because if someone went down there, competed hard and finished on the lead lap in 20th place or something, to many it would be another example of an open wheel driver who couldn’t cut it in stock cars.

Two things would make it even more difficult is 1) track time and 2) starting from 43rd place. IndyCar is being more than generous to Busch (as well as Juan Pablo Montoya) in giving them extra practice time to get a little more up to speed. I don’t see that courtesy being extended the other way around. With that in mind, testing time would be limited, and nobody wants to go through all of the preparation and make the effort to just drive around in circles and not enjoy the experience.

Doing it for the challenge is one thing, and even with plenty of prep time it still wouldn't be a level field. But going down there without a chance of being competitive just wouldn't be worth it, especially given the amount of attention and pressure that would come with it too.

Don't also forget the fact that any driver that does the double misses the driver’s meeting, which is a mandatory trip to the back of the field. For a veteran Cup driver like Kurt Busch, that’s not a big deal, he will be able to easily drive his way if not into contention, or at least far enough up to keep himself on the lead lap. An IndyCar driver would be learning as he went, and even an experienced wheelman would have a tough time keeping their head above water until the became comfortable with their surroundings.

I guess maybe I should take my advice from my last post and see it this way...if a driver goes down there and mixes it up with the Cup guys, I shouldn't take any criticism of said driver personally. Everyone has their own reasons (mostly bucket list) for wanting to do something like this, and if they are OK with whatever reaction they get for their efforts, we all should be too.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Take on Qualifying

There's no doubt Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles' announcement that Indy 500 qualifying would be changing this year was met with a lot of different opinions. And, as usual, the opinions were split right around the old school/new school line, as it usually is.

Here's how the new procedure basically goes: everyone qualifies both days. For all intent and purposes, Saturday sets the Fast Nine and Sunday's qualifying order. Sunday is the real deal, with the Fast Nine and the awarding of the pole position capping the weekend.

Of course, the old school thinks that it's a gimmick that pisses all over the tradition that is Indy 500 qualifying, while others think that given the lack of interest in qualifying over the last several years, that change was in order.


Count me in as someone who is looking forward to seeing how this new procedure shakes out. I'm looking forward to seeing 66 (or more) qualifying attempts over the course of two days, with a dramatic conclusion in the final hours that should be pretty exciting.

I've been going to Time Trials off and on since 1979, which means I've seen a lot of historic things happen on Pole Day. I've seen the track record broken close to 15 times and saw drivers break 210, 220 and 230 mph for the first time. Watching some videos on YouTube lately, I realized that I saw some really cool stuff. I have a lot of great memories of going to the track back in the day, but I've also realized that how things have been done was starting to go a little bit stale.

The proof is in the attendance. While it's been going up little by little the last several years, it's never going to be the way it "once was". Even in two or three years when, as anticipated, Arie Luyendyk's almost 20-year-old track record of 236 mph is broken, people aren't going to all of the sudden start streaming through the gates. Sure, more people will come, but this idea that 100,000 people are someday going to show up again is just foolish.

What makes me laugh is it seems that many of the people who are complaining don't even go to the track. So if you don't go to the track, why do you care? And if the traditional way of qualifying is "not broke so it doesn't need to be fixed" why aren't you going? If it's so awesome, and steeped in so much tradition that goes back through generations, than why don't people go?

Is it still a holdover from the IRL saga? If it is, get over it. Here's what's funny...Matt, my oldest, was born in 1996, the first year of the uprising (I'm not using the "s" word). He just turned 18 a couple of weeks ago. In the eyes of society, he's grown to be an adult. That's how long people have been grinding this ax, and they should've gotten over it about the time Matt turned 11. It's been an entire generation since that happened, if you can't look past what happened and move on, I just give you my best and will carry on with my own personal fandom.

Times have changed. When I was a kid going to the Speedway, it was no big deal to go somewhere and sit around for several hours, the entertainment was just being there and being part of the atmosphere. It's the same way the generation before mine had no problem going to the Speedway and watching a race that took five hours to complete. Could you imagine sitting through a five-hour race? Oy.

But in retrospect, most years it was a mixture of excitement and boredom. The first hour or so of qualifying was great, then many times teams would sit the rest of the afternoon (especially if the weather got hot) and try again after 3 or 4 p.m.

Case in point...1987. Do you know how many cars qualified on Pole Day? 11. Eleven! In 1993, a total of 15 cars qualified on the first day, but not a single car took to the track between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

So really, there were some stretches where not a lot was going on. With our unlimited attention spans (i.e. we were great at killing time) that wasn't such of a big deal. But it certainly is now, if people are dropping money on something they want a lot in return. That's just how the market works.

Just like that annoying girl in that AT&T commercial (thank goodness that spot doesn't run any longer) we want more, we want more. Heck, people complain if they are at the track and they can't get a good mobile phone signal. When I went to the Daytona 500 last year during the government shutdown, people were complaining because there was no military flyover. Wait, isn't there stuff going on out on the track? Then why are you feeling the need to look at your phone or need planes?


Right here, right now, if you had the myriad of activities at our disposal now and knew there were only going to be 11 qualifiers on Pole Day, would you go? Would you sit at the track in steaming hot conditions for four hours in the hope that a car would try and qualify? Some of us would, but most wouldn't, and I don't blame them.


Our needs are different than they were forever ago. If people are going to take the time and pay the money to come to a racetrack, they have spoken, they want cars at the track and they want something at stake.

That's pretty apparent when you look at the way qualifying has changed in many different racing series over the last few years. First F1 went to knockout qualifying, IndyCar followed, then added the heat races at Iowa and finally this year NASCAR has adopted its own knockout qualifying format, and already had the Duel races at Daytona (Editor's note: Which are a lot of fun to watch).

All of them have proven to be somewhat successful (although Cup needs some serious tweaking, both with the on-track procedures and the delay between the television broadcast and real time), and I would hope that IndyCar would expand the Fast Six qualifying to the ovals too.

Here's one thing that those in the old guard need to remember: changes are made with the casual fan in mind, not us. Racing -- hell, any sport -- needs to continue to engage new fans and to grow their fanbase. We also know that the only way an entity stays in business is if it makes money and finds more ways to up their revenue stream. You can't stand pat, there's just no way, because it costs more and more to do business.

In the case of IMS, it reached a point where it didn't make enough money in 30 days to cover the other 335, so they had to find a way to make the days the track is open make more money than it costs to run on days it is closed.

What also has changed is that sponsors and networks have more and more of an influence on these decisions. There is no doubt that ABC signed off on this decision, and for good reason. Like people in the stands, TV viewers want to see cars on the track. Verizon is on the cusp of dropping between $50 and $100 million on IndyCar over the next several years, an investment like that expects input as well.

When you look at the investment by Verizon and the all-in commitment by ABC, it makes this decision more understandable. Maybe not something we all agree with, but should understand. Lots of people still live with the fear of IndyCar folding, well, these decisions are made in hopes that it doesn't. There is a new guard in place and I am putting a lot of faith in them, but I feel that their intentions are to do what is best for IndyCar and not to advance their own personal agendas, which had gone on for far too long.

Besides, just because things are traditions doesn't mean you can't start new ones. A few years ago when I was going through a divorce I mentioned to my mom that among the things that I'd miss were the traditions I had with my family, one of which included attending the 500 with my (now former) wife every year.

My mom, who is 76 and has seen her fair share of change in her life responded...if you are sad about traditions ending, just go out and make new ones. So I did. One of which is that Matt comes to the race with me and someday Kevin, son No. 2, will come as well. Maybe even this year. I've relished the chance to spend time with Matt and I think the Speedway is something that has brought us closer. While he doesn't have the love for IMS like I do, he still enjoys our yearly trip down there, and is already talking about going in May.

I'm at the end of this long rant, but my point is pretty simple. Quit taking all of this stuff so personally. Change is good and change is sometimes healthy. If you want the IndyCar series to get bigger and better, you have to accept that change are going to be made and that you may not always like them. The best thing to do is to roll with the punches and enjoy race day, because pound for pound IndyCar puts on the best race day in the world.

It's time...let's all start a few new traditions. Come on, you know you want to.




Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Kurt Busch: The Deal Is Done

After spending close to a year doing little than staring across the room at each other (besides a brief encounter at the punch table), Kurt Busch and Andretti Autosport are finally dance partners for this year's running of the Indy 500. That means for the first time in 11 years there will be a driver attempting the double of the 500 and NASCAR's Coke 600 in Charlotte.

A deal that has been in the works for a while finally got done, and while details have to be hammered out, Busch said he's signed a contract and that they are moving forward. If he makes it to the starting line for both races, Busch will join John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart -- who happens to be the owner of his Cup car -- to accomplish the feat.

You knew this was gonna happen, come on, we all did. After the positive vibes that came from Busch's Speedway test last year, sooner or later he was going to be coming.

And to be honest, I couldn't be more thrilled. Per my usual I'm not going to even spend a second of time thinking about how this will "move the needle" because that's something I don't worry about because it is something I cannot control. While I'm guessing that there will be a very heightened interest in this year's race, my motivation for seeing this happen is just because it will be a lot of fun.

This is what Indy is supposed to be about, the best drivers in the world coming together to hash out who is the best. With the addition of Jacques Villeneuve (which I'm still a bit lukewarm about) the field will have an F1 World Champion, a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, several IndyCar champions and I believe six former 500 winners whose victories cover a span of 19 years. That's pretty cool.

Like him or hate him (and my feelings about Kurt Busch change pretty much daily...but while we are on the subject I never like Kyle Busch), he's a very talented driver. Very talented. That has sometimes gotten lost over the years thanks to a temper and a penchant for outbursts at the media, which has cost him a couple of rides in his career, but his drive last year with Furniture Row Racing was extremely impressive. I think there are only a handful of drivers that would've gotten Furniture Row into the Chase, and he is one of them.

I also think he's corralled his attitude a bit over the years, but what's left is this little edge that Bad Kurt might return, and that adds an extra storyline. All I hear from a lot of IndyCar fans is that someone with an edge, a la Paul Tracy, is missing from the paddock. Kurt getting a little feisty about something during May, especially during the race, might be extremely popcorn-worthy.

Busch is a bit of a throwback in that he is a guy who is interested in driving different forms of cars, from sports cars to dragsters. His interest in IndyCars goes back several years when he first tested a car for Bobby Rahal in 2003, and since then he's done everything from sports cars to dragsters. But for some reason, he finds IndyCar intriguing. Actually, I think a lot of Cup drivers find IndyCar intriguing, but for various reasons have no interest in trying it.

It will be interesting what will happen when May rolls around and he takes to the track with a bunch of other cars at speed. While his test was very solid -- he passed his rookie test and was turning laps at 218 mph -- the car was set up for comfort more than speed. Indy is all about trimming the car back, and then trimming it back some more, to try and find a way to balance technology and bravery enough to get a car to go 230 mph around a 100 year old race course. It's not as easy as it looks, and even with his skill and knowledge, a couple of test sessions won't close the learning curve between Busch and the regular drivers of the series.

What am I hoping for? I hope he qualifies well and runs the entire 500 miles...if he gets that out of the car it will be a heck of an accomplishment, and will hopefully whet his appetite for 2015 and maybe even beyond. I'm sure there are a legion of Cup fans that probably believe he's going to walk in and win the race, because Cup drivers are the "best in the world" (thanks for that, Darrell Waltrip), but I'd put him at a serious longshot. It's one thing to get to the front, like Carlos Munoz and AJ Allmendinger did last year, but it's a completely different thing to beat a deep, experienced field of open wheel drivers to the checkered flag.

I also hope that he brings a higher level of respect to the 500, too. Most of us on the IndyCar side don't really care what the Cup folks think, but since I dip my toe in both waters I've seen more and more over time that people are starting to get what IndyCar is about, and have more complimentary things to say about the series. I think what would help IndyCar and Cup (and they need it, despite what they say) is for people to become fans of BOTH series.

I'm starting to get that way. I went to a couple of Cup races last year and will be going to a couple more this year, and I have to admit they are a lot of fun. The people are nice and the racing is decent. Does NASCAR represent what I stand for when it comes to pure racing? Absolutely not. I don't like a lot of the rules or the manufactured drama -- or the Chase -- but I like it enough to call it a guilty pleasure. I watch IndyCar for my pure racing fix, and my loyalty definitely lies here, but Daytona is a pretty good time. Watching 43 cars come thundering at you in a big pack at 200 mph is a bit breathtaking the first time you see it.

I'd also hope that it brings more interest in drivers of both series doing the double. While the person I want to see try IndyCars -- Jimmie Johnson, ahem -- will never do it, I bet Allmendinger will try it someday, and it wouldn't surprise me if Kyle Larson did too. And I wouldn't be shocked one bit if Stewart gave it one more try, because no matter what he says, I don't believe him when he claims that a Brickyard 400 win is enough.

I'm not sure who on the IndyCar side right now would warrant the interest to get a Cup ride for a double bit, but given the rumors we've heard in the past I bet James Hinchcliffe gets a shot at it down the road. I also think Scott Dixon would adapt pretty quickly to a Cup car and could do pretty well too.

I hope that someone doing the double becomes a regular thing, because it's fun and interesting and adds a new twist to the race. And if it brings more talented drivers and ups the competition level of the 500, then I'm all for it.