Monday, August 24, 2015

Thank You, Justin Wilson

I was on a flight back home from Denver tonight when I heard the word that Justin Wilson had passed away as a result of the head injuries he suffered during Sunday's race at Pocono. Like many of you, I was immediately numbed by the news. And still am.

I spent the rest of the flight thinking about lots of things, but I just kept coming back to how sad and how unfair all of this is. While we as human beings can achieve incredible things, we still can't figure out why people die and why the worst things happen to the best of people.

Because writing is how I deal with lots of things, I knew that this post would be forthcoming soon. But as I thought of the words I was going to use and how I was going to convey my feelings, the most simplest of tributes popped into my head.

And this tribute is just two words long: Thank You.

Thank you, Justin Wilson, for week after week thrilling us with your amazing driving talent and for entertaining us with your incredible skill. Thank you for show us that you can race hard while still racing fair and clean and still doing amazing things behind the wheel of a race car.

Thank you for showing that you can be an intensely competitive person (all professional athletes are the most competitive people on the planet) when the visor went down, but when the race was over you could treat people with love, compassion and kindness. Very few athletes are capable of doing that.

Thank you for representing IndyCar with class and dignity. While the ride of your lifetime may have unfortunately eluded you, you never complained, instead you made the most with what you had and still won anyway.

Thank you for loving the Indy 500 as much as we all do. You may have been born across the ocean, but you were one of us.

Thank you for your smile, for being great with the fans, and for knowing what kind of impact a minute of your time could have for someone.

Thank you for loving your family, for being a good husband and father. Though your time with them was short, they will carry you with them forever. Love never dies.

Thank you for choosing to donate your organs so that someone else could have life. Sometime tomorrow, a person will wake up with your heart beating in their chest, guaranteeing them more time with the people they love. Giving others life is one of the most selfless things any of us can do.

It's human nature to think about the legacy we are going to pass along when we leave this world. The older I get, the more I feel the best legacy you can leave is one where your love for others lasts forever. Justin Wilson had great success in his chosen profession, winning races and making a comfortable living for his family. But in the end, his legacy is his gentle nature, kind heart and compassionate spirit...not to mention being a total badass behind the wheel of a race car.

He leaves behind a lot of people that will grieve for him, but in the end I pray that everyone's hearts continue to stay full with the memories of who he was. Justin was the kind of man I aspire to be, and while I'm far from perfect, it's people like him who make me strive to do better.

Whether you are a spiritual person, say a prayer tonight for Justin's family, his wife and his two daughters. Also throw one up for Sage Karam, who while in his heart of hearts knows that what happened wasn't his fault, is still hurting as well.

Faith, hope, love...but the greatest of these is love. We will all miss Justin Wilson, but he will be in our hearts forever.

Godspeed, Justin, and thank you for making all of our lives a little bit better.



Saturday, August 8, 2015

Road America...Finally!

Like many of you, I was thrilled to see that Road America will be part of the IndyCar schedule next season. The 4-mile, 14-turn circuit in east-central Wisconsin was a stalwart on the schedule for 25 years, and it is hard to believe the series hasn't run there since 2007.

I know I had played it off in recent posts, both here and on social media, mostly because I was a bit skeptical of it happening. But now that is has, I can't be more excited and look forward to heading up there next June.

My attitude about it was this: it would be nice if it happened, but it's not a make or break thing for me. Now that it is happening, though, it's kind of like when you haven't seen a friend in a long time: you talk about how having not seen them in a while is no big deal, but when you do finally see them you realize how much you missed them.

In my opinion (and I am biased towards all things Midwest, BTW), Road America is the best road course in the country, and for anyone who is a fan of natural road courses, it should be in their top five. What I like about the course is that even with 14 turns there are some sections on it that are very, very fast. Dario Franchitti's track record of one minute, 39.866 seconds translates out to 145 miles per hour. For a road course, that is super fast.

And to go that fast, you have to have a lot of technical skill, which means the course does what a race track is supposed to do, identify the best driver. If you go to Racing Reference and view the list of open wheel winners, it's a pretty impressive list. As a fan of the sport since they began racing there, I remember some pretty epic races, and with the series the way it stands now, it should be a really awesome race next year too.

Make no mistake, though, beyond the racing part of it, this is a huge step forward for IndyCar. There is no denying that at its core, IndyCar is a business, and the series has had to scratch and claw mightily to find good partners to do business with. It took a long time, but Road America has finally decided that IndyCar is now a good partner, and hopefully that gives confidence to other tracks (like, say, Phoenix, Michigan or even Chicagoland) to maybe open the lines of communication a little bit more.

I think this is also a big step forward for IndyCar management. I know the thought of this pains many of you, but credit here goes to Mark Miles, Derrick Walker and the rest of the series' staff for getting this done. I've never really understood the hatred for Miles, anyway. Every single metric you can think of shows that this series is on the rise, yet people still think the guy should be fired.

Is the series in better shape now than it was two years ago? You bet, and no matter where else you decide to deflect the credit, it points to having the right people in place to get the job done. Over the last couple of years, Mark Miles maybe hasn't done what you've wanted him to do, but that's not his job. His job is to grow the business of IndyCar, and he has done that. So even if you have to cross your fingers behind your back to do it, give him a tip of the cap for this one.

I'll end this post like I have many times in the past, IndyCar fans. You wanted it, you've got it. All I've heard for years and years is "Road America needs to be on the schedule!". Well, it's here, and with 10 1/2 months until race day (June 26), you have no excuses to not support this race. It's put up or shut up time...again! IndyCar gave you what you wanted, and now it's time to do your job. Show up, and not just next year as a one and done thing, make this, and other races, a part of your summer schedule.

Given the rise in attendance and TV viewership, a lot of you have been doing that, but we have to keep it going. I know I have said it before, but if you are looking back to the 1990s for the "glory days" of this series, you are missing out on what the future holds. IndyCar is as poised as ever to start working its way back to those days, we as fans just have to keep working hard and doing our part to help make it happen.



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Iowa! (Part 2)

Back today as promised! I got to watch the last 100 laps of the IndyCar race, as well as the last 50 laps of the Indy Lights race, so I have a little more perspective to offer. For the amount of material out there from Iowa I could probably go to a third post, the weekend was that good!

The Ed/Sage incident -- Watching it in person, I thought Ed blew the whole thing out of proportion and that it was just hard racing. And after seeing the replay I stand by that opinion. While I thought Sage took a couple of unnecessary chances, I still think Ed could've handled it much differently. At no point in their racing each other did I think either drivers health or life was in danger.

Screaming on the radio for a penalty, launching into a profanity-laced rant on pit road and then running straight to Race Control is flat-out bush league. Then to treat Sage like crap on the plane ride home was just childish.

Lots of people in and around IndyCar say Ed's a nice guy, but all I see is a hothead who goes off when the racing isn't done on his terms. And let's call a spade a spade -- Ed's a Hulman, he's never, ever sat in a race car with the bottom line being he needed to win a race or have a good result to keep his career going. That's where Sage is at, and he is been in that situation many times in the past as well. While I know that everyone who races at that level has worked hard to get there, it's not as easy for some as others.

I can relate to Sage a little. Growing up there was a time my family didn't have a lot of money, and on top of that I was teased and bullied a lot. When I got onto equal footing with these same people (mainly a court or ballfield), I played them hard. Be it a pickup game, practice or the real thing, I only really had one speed because I felt I always had something to prove. Some people didn't appreciate that, but I felt that was what I needed to do in order to compete, and, yes, win. I grew out of that as time went on, and am certainly not proud of some of my actions, but I won't apologize for it, either. Neither should Sage.

Bottom line, Ed Carpenter is a veteran driver and, more importantly, a car owner, and I think he needs to conduct himself in a more professional manner. It's obvious that Sage needs direction and coaching -- while I thought his driving for the most part was brilliant Saturday night, he has been a hazard to himself and others at other points during the season -- and it's up to the experienced drivers to help him.

The kid is only 20 years old, and young drivers at the highest levels tend to tear up a lot of equipment. Like Paul Tracy...in his first ride for Roger Penske at Michigan in 1991, he destroyed a car and broke his leg, and in his first 20 IndyCar starts he crashed out six times! I once read back in the day that PT's repair bill for the 1992 season was over $2 million. PT never lost his edge as a driver, but he certainly smoothed out the rough edges and became an absolute beast. Can Sage do the same thing? I hope so, he's a cool guy with a great backstory that we need more of in IndyCar racing.

Another one-day show -- I mentioned last week after Milwaukee that I thought the one-day aspect of the event led to an uptick in attendance, and given the crowd at Iowa on Saturday night I think that having qualifying and support races along with the main event made for more people in the seats.

It doesn't matter the situation, people want to feel like they get the most for their money. There was certainly a lot to see and do on Saturday, and everyone I encountered seemed pretty happy with their experience. On Saturday afternoon I found out my friend Kevin was at the race as the guest as a vendor, and during one of the cautions came up and hung out with us for a while.

Although he once came to the 500 with me, he isn't an IndyCar fan, but he said he was having a great time and was really into the race. Iowa is always a good show, and is a gorgeous place to be at night in the summer.

Montoya -- JPM's crash was a bit of a shock to me. I wasn't following him specifically, but he was in my field of vision and when his car pancaked the wall my first thought was: "Wait, did that really just happen?"

Can't do anything about equipment failures, and as the night went on, he wasn't the only one to have that problem as Turn 2 jumped up and bit several drivers. But what could've been a turnaround night for the rest of the field didn't lead to much as Helio Castroneves went backwards the last half of the race and Scott Dixon had mechanical problems as well, just as it seemed like he had gotten a good car underneath him.

In a short season, a driver has to count his lucky stars if he gets a "mulligan", and JPM definitely got one on Saturday night. He had a disastrous result and no one was able to take advantage, at least as far as he was concerned. Like I said last week, that's the kind of luck you need in your corner if you want to win a championship.

Rule 9.3.8 -- I was going to dedicate a full post to this but in the end think it is so insignificant that it doesn't deserve one.

IndyCar jumped the shark here, everyone lost their shit, put on their Fonzie jacket and skis and jumped into oblivion.




And no, I'm not talking about the series, I'm talking about the people on social media who absolutely went off the deep end about this. We should've seen this coming after Fontana, when the drivers said way too much after the race and were way too critical of the series, which they have been for as long as I remember.

You can read the deets here.

People, the sky isn't falling here. I don't see where anyone could possibly believe that the drivers, owners, etc. constantly airing their dirty laundry in the media does an ounce of good for the series. Plus, rule No. 1 is that you never criticize management. Let's be honest, IndyCar has one of the most negative and anti-management fanbase in all of sports, and most, if not all, of the reasons for that lie in the fact that everyone and anyone can criticize them without fear of repercussion. I feel that much of the damage done to the reputation of the series has been the constant sniping over the bow in the press between the powers that be, and also has created an Us vs. Them mentality that keeps things from getting done.

And, as my PR wife has told me before, it's important to do two things 1) control the message and 2) stay in front of the story. Any organization is smart in controlling the message, that's why these rules exist.

Besides, these kinds of rules exist in every sports league in the world. Here is one from the NBA Constitution and bylaws, section 35:

(c) If in the opinion of the Commissioner any act or conduct of a Player at or during an Exhibition, Regular Season, or Playoff Game has been prejudicial to or against the best interests of the Association or the game of basketball, the Commissioner shall impose upon such Player a fine not exceeding $50,000, or may order for a time the suspension of any such Player from any connection or duties with Exhibition, Regular Season, or Playoff Games, or he may order both such fine and suspension.
(d) The Commissioner shall have the power to suspend for a definite or indefinite period, or to impose a fine not exceeding $50,000, or inflict both such suspension and fine upon any Player who, in his opinion, (i) shall have made or caused to be made any statement having, or that was designed to have, an effect prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball or of the Association or of a Member, or (ii) shall have been guilty of conduct that does not conform to standards of morality or fair play, that does not comply at all times with all federal, state, and local laws, or that is prejudicial or
detrimental to the Association. 

There is also a section 35A which discusses the behavior of non-player personnel, like Mark Cuban, for example. In researching a potential post, I discovered that Major League Baseball has the same kind of language in their by-laws (in fact, being ejected from a game carries an automatic fine). Oh yeah, and my HR handbook has something in it as well.

Like always, people are thinking that they are trying to take the passion and excitement from the sport. I say, far from it. Drivers will still be able to express what they think, so long as they don't cross a certain line. I hope the drivers act like adults the rest of the season and continue to say what they do, and if they get fined for it, so be it. Then again, many in this group of will just stop talking to the media altogether, and they will get a lot of support for that. Which sucks.

I get drivers have concerns, and I fully agree with and support their desire to express their opinions, whether it be about safety, the series, sponsors...whatever. However, take the proper channels and do it the right way that is done in a positive manner for what helps everyone get on the same page and keep things moving forward.

I have been a part of the sports media for 15 years and I can guarantee not a single story I have written where one side criticizes the other has caused the side being criticized to act in a way the critical party wants them to. It doesn't happen. As I said about Robin Miller...Mark Miles seems like a reasonable individual. If someone wants the story, why don't they just call up Miles' admin and schedule a time to swing by and talk? 

One other criticism I want to address...people say the drivers go to the series about safety issues and the series doesn't listen. My answer to that? Other than James Hinchcliffe's freak accident in May, how many accidents this season, no matter how violent, has the driver jumped out of the car and walked away?

The answer: all of them. Seems to me they are paying attention. 

OK, I'm done with that rant. Bottom line is that I don't understand how anyone feels like it is a positive thing for the drivers to be constantly harping on the series. At some point these guys just need to drive, and let everyone take care of what they are good at. Because despite what everyone wants to believe, if you look at attendance, revenues, sponsorship and TV numbers, the people taking care of that end are doing a pretty good job. Maybe they aren't doing things the way some want them to or in the timetable they want them to, but if you don't think the series is on better footing now than three years ago, you are delusional.

As I said to Patti Nolen at the Milwaukee race -- if the fanbase of any sport, not to mention the drivers or owners, were responsible for running their sport or series, it would be bankrupt by mid-season. Oh wait, didn't the owners already bankrupt a series before? Maybe it is a good thing when the grown-ups take over.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Iowa!

As longtime readers of this site know, I add the exclamation point to the title of the Iowa race given the long history my family has in the state, and how cool it is to be a part of that heritage. I was born in Davenport and while I only called Iowa home for five years, my family's lineage in the state goes back well over a century, so it will always be a special place for me.

And we can throw a few exclamation points out there for it being such a great race! With the weather being so nice and other races on the slate (more on that later), lots of people showed up and made it for a great environment. I love this racetrack for a lot of reasons, and it was in full song on Saturday in a lot of ways.

I have so much to talk about, I'm splitting this post into two entries, with the second coming tomorrow. We've got lots to cover, don't we? Let's spend today talking about the Top 10 and rock the hot takes tomorrow.

Winner -- Ryan Hunter-Reay. Or I could also say...Andretti Autosport, which put a driver in Victory Lane for the SIXTH straight year, with RHR making it two straight and three overall. Hunter-Reay never got to the point all race until he beat Josef Newgarden out of the pits with 37 laps to go and held off the field in a couple of late restarts. The victory breaks a 13-month string without a win and is just the third Top 5 in that span. It's just been a lost season for him, but it's a good way to start building up for 2016.

Runner-up -- Josef Newgarden. For the second straight week, Newgarden was the class of the field but came away empty in search of his first oval victory in the IndyCar Series. He now is first in the series in laps led on the season and is moving his career into beast mode.

Third place -- Sage Karam. Lots has been said about Sage's aggressive driving (more on that later as well) but overall I thought he did a fantastic job on a track that he'd never raced an IndyCar on before. Did he get a little loose at the end? Sure, but I'd rather see a guy go after it than say after the race they had a "fifth or sixth-place car". He's 20, and is racing in a way he sees fit to continue his racing career. The racing world is full of great drivers who tore up a bunch of equipment at the beginning of their careers. He's no different.

Fourth place -- Graham Rahal. Probably the drive of the night, in my opinion. A screwed up gearbox that couldn't get out of sixth gear might have been the least of his problems as he lost two laps early to another issue. Once he was back on the lead lap -- and then when he took tires during the last caution period -- Graham was an absolute rocket. It was crazy to see the way he overtook and put away cars when he had the new set of kicks on at the end of the race. Oh, and by the way, look who is second in points?!?!?

Fifth pace -- Carlos Munoz. It's an oval, and one that AA has had success...sound familiar? Contrary to his road racing roots, Carlos loves fast ovals where he can drive hard and take chances. And it seems like the faster the track, the more that attitude works for him.

So outside of RHR, can we call the rest of the Top 5 "The Future"? There was some serious young talent at the front of the field Saturday night. I could get used to it...how about you?

Sixth place -- Ed Carpenter. Once again, Ed distracts people from a well-driven race thanks to another post-race hissy (more on that later too). I understand heat-of-the-moment things, but personally I find the need to confront someone every time you think you are done wrong completely unprofessional. It makes for good theater if you are the type of person who needs drama to be a racing fan, but to me it comes across as a total "Born on Third" mentality from someone who should know to conduct himself better.

Seventh place -- Marco Andretti. Marco took tires late and I thought he would follow Graham to the front, but his charge fizzled out fairly quickly. Still, I am really impressed with Marco and his consistency this season. He is still the only driver who has completed every lap this year and with some good luck he could finish the season in the Top 5 in points. After all, he's only 45 points behind second place Rahal.

Eighth place -- Ryan Briscoe. After seeing his last two races end with his car on a hook and having to call his wife from the infield care center, an event-free evening was what Briscoe really needed. I'm not sure if he is in the car for the last three races -- someone help me out here -- but if he is he has podium finishes at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma in the past, and could be another guy who could finish the season on a positive note.

Ninth place -- Sebastien Bourdais. Started 24th and finished ninth is all you need to know about Seb's drive. The biggest mover in the field -- again -- he was just too far back and the pit strategy didn't fall into place the way they needed it to. Still, Bourdais has done some impressive work on the ovals the last few weeks.

Tenth place -- Will Power. Really? The best a Penske car could do Saturday night was 10th? After qualifying all four cars in the top six positions, EVERYBODY on that team went backwards from the drop, starting with points leader Juan Pablo Montoya having a suspension failure and smacking the wall just 10 laps in. Helio Castroneves finished 11th and Simon Pagenaud finished 14th.

Speaking of JPM -- His DFL could've delivered a huge blow to his championship hopes, but Scott Dixon, who at the start of the night was second in points, had a mechanical issue that left him 37 laps down at the end. That meant Dixon only got six points closer, so Juan dodged a huge bullet as Rahal is now in second but 42 points back.

Justin Wilson -- I'm starting to figure out, or at least developing a theory, as to why Michael Andretti put him in a completely unsponsored car for the last few races, and possibly the rest of the season. Wilson has long had a reputation as a fantastic test driver, so if a team is looking ahead to 2016, wouldn't it make sense to put a guy like him in the car and let him help you figure stuff out? Though he has had some bad luck in each of the last two races, when Wilson has been on he has been fantastic in race trim.

OK, so we're halfway there for this week. Look for part two sometime tomorrow!

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Wild Day at The Mile

Finally getting home and digesting the race a little bit, and let me first say, that was one of the crazier races I've seen in quite some time!

(Editor's note: If you scroll down on this blog you will see that I have made a couple of editing changes. I've had a change of heart -- I love IndyCar and love this little blog too much to let it go. Sorry for the drama, although I still think Robin Miller is a clown and I will be hitting the "unfollow" button on Twitter a lot in the coming days and weeks.)

But anyway, there were advantages and disadvantages to being at The Mile on Sunday. The advantage was that there was a lot of good racing that hopefully those of you who watched it on TV got to see some of (the race is on my DVR, I'll watch it tomorrow night), but the disadvantage was that there were so many crazy strategies going on it was a little hard to keep track of who was coming and who was going!

Lots of big name and big team drivers spent the day riding around in the midfield until several made some hay in the final 50 laps. Most of that was due to taking tires after the final yellow when Justin Wilson's motor expired with 27 laps to go, as 10 teams laid out four fresh Firestones and took a gamble that paid off.

Either way, Sebastian Bourdais drove one hell of a race. In the era that we currently reside, it's so rare to see one car and driver just absolutely demolish a field like SeaBass did on Sunday. The last yellow just made the race look closer than it actually was. Kind of like how a football team is down 42-14 with five minutes to go and scores a couple of late touchdowns to make it look respectable.

So let's go through the Top 10 and a few other things:

Winner -- Sebastian Bourdais. Seb channeled his Champ Car form on Sunday, and while I normally don't like it when one driver (or in this case, two, but more on that later) dominates a race, when someone puts on a performance this special, it's really a lot of fun. Seb could do pretty much whatever he wanted over the final half of the race, and I will be interested to see how many cars he passed on track, because every time I looked at him it seemed like he was going around someone.

This was his first win on an oval since he came back to IndyCar, and a good win for a good guy. A few years ago, do you think we would've said that? But seriously, he's really one of the good guys of the series.

2nd place -- Helio Castroneves. Kevin and I were listening to qualifying as we were driving up and I was a little shocked to hear of the snafu that Team Penske pulled off to send Helio to the back of the field. Last to second is a pretty good drive, don't you think? I feel like these next two weeks are crucial to the championship hunt...anything can happen on short tracks, and with Iowa and Pocono the only remaining ovals, things can change in a hurry.

3rd place -- Graham Rahal. This has gone on long enough to say that Graham is -- finally -- for real. Now sitting third in points, GH is having a breakout year and driving with a ton of confidence. Of course, there was some whining about him on Twitter, because everyone likes to whine about him on Twitter, but let's be honest, he's putting up results.

4th place -- Juan Pablo Montoya. JPM was one of those who seem to spend a lot of the day running around in 10th place or so but was able to end up with a respectable finish. Which given the points implications was huge. While the day didn't always totally go his way, he leaves MKE with a bigger lead over Scott Dixon than when they arrived this weekend, and right now that's all he really needs to worry about.

5th place -- Josef Newgarden. I think the bar has officially been raised for Josef, because I felt like with the car he had that his result should've been better. Winning the pole and dominating the first half of the race, and eventually leading 109 laps, he is officially moved into badass territory and is now on the short list of guys who can be considered a contender week in and week out.

6th place -- Tony Kanaan. Just a really quiet day for TK. I was a little surprised to see he only led three laps given he had one of the more uneventful days in the field and mostly ran near the front, but it was a pretty workman-like day overall for TK. Look for him to be super motivated at Iowa on Saturday night -- he dominated last year's race only to have it pretty much stolen from him at the end.

7th place -- Scott Dixon. Another guy who hung out in the middle of the field for most of the day, and the argument can be made that 7th place still is the middle of the field. He's 54 points behind Montoya for the championship, and finishing ahead of JPM -- preferably way ahead -- from here on out has to be his priority.

8th place -- Marco Andretti. See Dixon, Scott. Marco is in the hunt a lot more than he used to be, especially on ovals, but needs to put it all together one of these days and get the monkey off his back that Graham Rahal handed him a couple of weeks ago. Marco is the only driver to have completed every lap this season, which to me lends a lot to his maturation process.

9th place -- Simon Pagenaud. Simon's improvement of eight spots over his starting position was third best in the field behind Castroneves (22 places) and Bourdais (10) but he didn't have as much fun as those guys did. He's going the wrong way in the standings and needs to fix that fast.

10th place -- Ed Carpenter. This is where I get a bit brutal for a minute. For a guy whose sole focus is ovals, he has been awful this season, and I'm beginning to wonder where his head's at. For the record, I think he is a fantastic owner, and will win the Indy 500 in that capacity someday. But as a driver he fails to take any accountability for his on-track actions, something that if one of his employees did I'm guessing he wouldn't tolerate. I also think he showed very little class and sportsmanship early in the race, when he was near DFL and Newgarden pulled up to put him a lap down. He held Newgarden, his teammate, up for close to 15 laps, which allowed Ryan Briscoe to keep Josef in his sights.

I'm all for battling to stay on the lead lap, but when you fall a mile behind just 12-13 miles into the race, you get the hell out of the way and figure it out. Your problems aren't their problems.

18th place -- Justin Wilson. I'm adding a couple of names to this list as notables, and Wilson is one of them. I thought he drove a fantastic race yesterday until his mechanical issues (and a long pit stop) at the end.

22nd place -- Will Power. The champ's title defense took a huge hit (as did the SAFER barrier, as you can see in the photo) when Briscoe spun out ahead of him on Lap 131. He's now 70 points behind Montoya, and while he's been known to make up points in a hurry --  as he's done in years' past -- Montoya is a little too good to make stupid mistakes to let him back into it. After everything going his way last year, the luck has turned a little, which shows how  many things need to go right to win a title.


One day show -- The qualify/race in one day idea is something I've floated in this space before, and I think it led to the improved attendance at the race. Good weather helped too. It's simple: people want their money's worth, and if you give them more activities to watch, they will make it worth their while to go. I know the team's hate it, but when you are begging for fans you give them what they want.

Track walk -- Another cool item this year was the chance for fans to walk the track after the race, and a couple hundred of us took advantage. Walking the track was both fun and historic for me, and it should be a staple at oval tracks during the season. Props also go out to Takuma Sato, who came over and spent several minutes signing autographs for fans.

Hinch -- It was good to see The Mayor at the track again, and as you can tell by this photo with Kevin, appears to be in very good form. He was in a hurry to get somewhere but was nice enough to stop and pose. I asked him how he felt (over the roar of the Indy Lights race) and he gave me a huge nod and a thumbs up. Awesome.

Can The Mile be saved? -- After every Milwaukee race, the speculation arises as to whether or not enough had been done to bring the race back another year. My answer is: I sure hope so!

It's a favorite track with the drivers and it has so much history that it would be missed by a lot of people if it weren't on the schedule. Having now gone to the race the last four years, I've seen the crowds grow and the infield become busier with more people, activity and sponsor activation. It would be such a shame to see it go away now.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Indy!

Remember a few days ago when I said that the IndyCar series was one race day away from redemption? Well, it's safe to say they got it Sunday. Once again, when it mattered, the series got its act together and put on an amazing show.

In year four of the DW12 era, and the first using the new aero kits, the drivers put on a performance for the ages. I don't know if I can put what happened today into words, but I'll try!

Let's roll through the Top 10 finishers, and I'll throw my thoughts on a couple of other topics as always.

Winner: Juan Pablo Montoya. I can't believe it! I finally correctly picked a winner! Actually, two of my predictions came true, as I said there would be more lead changes than last year, which there were by a count of 37-34.

Anyway, I felt like JPM came into the month with a lot of confidence, having already won a race and holding the lead in points. My faith was tested when he only mustered a 15th-place starting position in qualifying, then was only 12th-fastest on Carb Day. And to make matters worse, he dropped to 30th place when he needed a new rear wing after contact with Simona de Silvestro. Which, by the way, happened before the field had even completed one lap under green.

But in a drive that was eerily similar to that of Dario Franchitti's 28th-to-win run in 2012, JPM just started digging, making adjustments on every stop and driving completely angry. Unlike us mere mortals, where driving angry leads to bad things, when JPM is in that mode he makes magic happen. It wasn't easy, on a Twitter chat hosted by the AP's Jenna Fryer, I asked how many times he had to make wing adjustments and when he felt like the car had come to him.

Here was his reply: "Every stop except the last one. Car came to me 1 stop from the end."

As the race came down to the final stretches, when it mattered, he was the bravest driver on the track and finally took the lead for good when he passed Will Power with two laps to go. That's what he does.

One thing I noticed after the race was how this win is a big deal for him. I didn't feel that way when he won his first 500 in 2000. Back then, the race was just a stepping stone for him to Formula 1, just like it was for Jacques Villeneuve five years earlier. This time, he was genuinely excited to win. Getting older helps, but up until 2000, racing had come really, really easy for him. In the 15 years since, it hasn't, and he rolled into Victory Lane a very humble champion.

I think this win will change many people's opinion about him, and while he isn't going to be as beloved a champion as other drivers, he can now be considered an Indy 500 legend, and though he has run the race only three times, it fits. When you consider the fact he has won in IndyCars, F1, NASCAR and endurance racing, he might be one of the better all-around drivers of this era.

Runner-up: Will Power. Overall this was Will's best 500 of his career, as before Sunday his best finish was fifth and he has only been in the Top 10 three times in seven races. He drove a solid, mistake-free race, just got beat by a better car and driver. But if he keeps driving like this he will win Indy someday.

Third: Charlie Kimball. What a great run by Charlie. Though he pretty much got freight trained when he had the chance to run on the point, he was well into the mix at the end. If his car had been a little better he would've been set up to make a run for the win. Mid-race he was really moving, as he posted the race's top lap (226.712) at the race's halfway point.

Fourth: Scott Dixon. The class car and driver who was the dominant driver through the race's first 150 laps. But as longtime watchers of the 500 know, the driver who dominates a lot of the race doesn't always win. I didn't hear what Dixie had to say about the final 50 laps, but before that he could do almost anything he wanted with his car. Though he led a race-high 84 laps, just six came in the final 125 miles.

In all, the top four finished within 1.02 seconds. Think about that, after 500 miles and 185 minutes of racing, that's all that separated the top four finishers. Awesome.

Fifth: Graham Rahal. His impressive driving continues as he was first in class with the Hondas. I think he had resigned himself to the fact that they just didn't have the speed to contend for the win but came away with enough points to sit fifth in the standings, just seven points out of third.

Sixth: Marco Andretti. Like Rahal, it was kind of a ho-hum day for him. Though he was never out of the Top 10 once he broke into it, he never was able to push to the front, either. Still, it was his sixth Top-6 finish in 10 appearances at Indy. Let that sink in a bit, Sunday was Marco's tenth Indy 500! And he is still only 28! He still has plenty of time to win one, and I think he will. One more note, it was also the 70th start by an Andretti at Indy (Mario 29, Michael 16, John 12, Marco 10, Jeff 3).

Seventh: Helio Castroneves. The quest for win No. 4 continues. Helio is another guy who just didn't have it Sunday, he only led for two laps and seemed to disappear for long stretches of the race.

Eighth: JR Hildebrand. If no other opportunities present themselves in racing for a while, though they should, Hildebrand can make a pretty good living just one-offing at Indy (he ran the Angie's List GP too). Once again, he drove well, and finished higher than teammates Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter.

Ninth: Josef Newgarden. Started ninth, finished ninth, ran around ninth place all day. On the good side, it was a career-best finish for Josef at Indy, on the bad side, his CFH Racing team destroyed three perfectly good race cars while finishing P8, P9 and P30 (Ed Carpenter) on the day. Time to just load up the hauler and head to Detroit.

Tenth: Simon Pagenaud. I thought for the first 480 miles or so that Simon ran a brilliant race. He took what the car gave him, ran up front (eight times for 35 laps) and looked to be ready to contend for the win, only to have equipment issues that forced a late pit stop. He remarked at the Victory Banquet that he'd like to drive for Team Penske until he is as old as both Montoya and Castroneves -- 40. If he does that he will win a 500 between now and then.

A couple of extras...

13th place: Ryan Briscoe. All things considered, Ryan ran the type of race that was expected of him when Sam Schmidt brought him in to drive James Hinchcliffe's car. After being clipped and spun out during the opening lap incident between Sage Karam and Takuma Sato, Briscoe got the car restarted, stayed on the lead lap and quietly started moving up, and in the end had improved 18 spots over his starting position. The sad fact of racing is that there are only so many seats for so many drivers, and oftentimes Briscoe loses the game of musical chairs, but more often than not, when you give him a car he does well in it.

26th place: Tony Kanaan. As usual, the loudest cheers of the day were for TK, and over a quarter millions hearts broke along with his when he crashed in Turn 3 with 50 laps to go. In the early going, TK was the one that had something for Dixon, and having only needed four turns at the front to lead 30 laps, he had a very hooked up car. If he had been in the mix in the closing laps, that would've taken the drama absolutely sky-high.

Chevy vs. Honda. Chevy, Sharpie. No doubt Chevy has held the upper hand all season, but it was to the extreme at Indy, with eight of the first 10 finishers driving under its banner. Of the two Hondas, one was driven by a driver absolutely on fire now (Rahal) and the other was by a guy who has the "going fast at Indy" in his DNA.

American drivers. Five of the top 10 and seven of the top 15 cars were piloted by American drivers. Not too shabby.

Youth not served. But speaking of YOUNG American drivers, it was a tough day for both Sage Karam and Conor Daly. Daly's day was over before it even started as he didn't even take the green flag after experiencing engine problems, while Karam's race lasted all of about 10 seconds after he was involved in a first turn incident with Sato. Not his fault at all, but the toughest lesson you can possibly learn is that it is possible to lose a 500-mile race on the first lap. Unfortunate for both of them, but they move on to drive another day.

I could go on forever about what I saw Sunday, but I must say, the thing that was the most fun for me was having Matt and Kevin along for the race. Matt started coming with me in 2011 -- what a great year to start, right? -- while Kevin attended the race for the first time. It was such an enjoyable day for me, and I'm already excited thinking about next year!






Saturday, May 23, 2015

Day Before the 500 Recap

Earlier this week, I was having a hard time trying to decide whether to attend Legends Day at the Speedway or head out to Lucas Oil Raceway for the 70th annual Day (formerly Night) Before the 500 festivities. Since it is Kevin's first trip down for the race weekend, I left it up to him, and he decided he wanted to see some racing.

So after arriving at my sister's house in Elwood at about 2 a.m. -- Kevin had graduated from 8th grade on Friday night -- we were up at 9 to make drive down to LOR. It wasn't too bad of a trip, traffic was nothing compared to what it will be on Sunday, and we breezed down there in about an hour.

I ended up getting the pit pass tickets for both of us, which include admission to the grounds and a green wristband so that we could enter the pits. In the end, we were glad we got those, but more on that later.

Believe it or not, Saturday was my first trip ever to Lucas Oil Raceway. Back when I lived in Indy in the early 1990s, I'd watch the racing out there on ESPN, and while I kept saying over and over I should go out there, I never did.

Needless to say, I was really impressed with the facility. The grandstands are very nice and from pretty much everywhere you have a nice view all the way around the track. There is a grassy hill in Turn 1 that looks like it offers some pretty nice sight lines, but we didn't make it over there.

We arrived just in time for USAC Silver Crown qualifying. That race was going to be wedged in between two Mazda Road to Indy races, the USF2000 Freedom 75 and the Pro Mazda Freedom 90. Though I love the noise of open wheel cars, there is just something about that throaty roar that comes from a Silver Crown, or even a stock car. There is just so much power behind it.

We sat in the grandstands for the USF2000 race, which was won by Jake Eidson, who turns 20 years old on Sunday. There wasn't much racing up front as Eidson won flag to flag (in fact, all three races had that same result), but there was some good racing going on in the pack, and Eidson was fun to watch because he was so smooth working his way through traffic.

Nico Jamin finished second and kept that all important points lead, while Aaron Telitz was third to put two Americans on the podium.

Then it was on to the Silver Crown race, where Tanner Swanson was without peer, winning the pole and leading every lap to win by 16 seconds over his brother Kody. Both Swansons were on top of their game as they were the only two drivers on the lead lap at the end.

Also in the field was Jarrett Andretti (here's his car), who was there with his dad, IndyCar and NASCAR veteran John, in his pit, as well as his grandpa, Aldo. No sign of Mario or Michael...darn it. The third-generation driver finished 11th.

What was really fun about that race is that Kevin and I watched it from the pit wall. When we first went into the pits we saw some other people with green wristbands standing behind a yellow line, so we parked there too. But as the race was starting I saw some other people walking towards the pit wall, so we headed there too. Ask for forgiveness instead of permission, right? Nobody seemed to mind too much, which means a green wristband is a little like flying first class, they pretty much let you do whatever you want.

(Yes, that's a Wedding Singer reference, in case you were wondering)

We ended up standing next to Eddie Sachs, Jr., whose No. 25 car driven by Davey Ray dropped out early with engine problems. I didn't know that he owned a team, so that was kind of interesting.

Once the race got going I got a good laugh out of this picture of Kevin. He has "the pose" of a car owner or a crew chief going, doesn't he? All he needs is a headset and a stopwatch. That is where his interests lie...so maybe someday! Actually, with this pose he kind of reminds me of Roger Penske!

After the Silver Crown race ended, the day started to drag a bit. With the USF2000 race going green the entire way, and the Silver Crown race having just a quick caution early on, we were way ahead of time, and it was going to be about an hour before the Pro Mazda race began.

Kev was getting a little bored and wanted to go home, but I gave him a nudge to stick it out, and he said at the end of the day the Pro Mazda race was his favorite. Good thing!

In that race, Weiron Tan jumped out to an early lead and never looked back to pick up his third win in the series. Will Owen was second while Neil Alberico was third. With Tan doing work up front, most of the good racing was back in the field as several drivers had some great battles, and there was even some three-wide racing in places. Good stuff!

We watched that race from the stands, but they opened the gate near the start/finish line and fans started moving onto the track, so we just followed the crowd and got a front-row view for the post-race celebration. 

All-in-all it was a really fun day. We got to see some racing and get some up-close action, and it definitely whetted our appetites for the big race!

No doubt that it will more than likely be on our schedule next year as well. It should be on yours too!

Below are the starts and first laps of each race!

USF2000


Silver Crown


Pro Mazda