Wednesday, May 3, 2017

One Thing From Back In The Day I Miss

So, did you watch much of Fernando Alonso's test at IMS today? I watched a good bit and thought he did very well. It was a good start, although the real work begins in 12 days when he returns for practice and they start trying to make the car go faster. It's pretty amazing how they can pin the car to the track at 222 mph but the drivers are hanging on hard when the car's going just 5-7 mph faster.

Before I get started on waxing poetically about something from my youth, I wanted to come here and admit that I was wrong. It turns out this whole deal is way bigger than I could've possibly imagined. If the data is accurate, close to 1 million people worldwide tuned in via various social media channels to watch the coverage.

How that transfers to anything on May 29th is for another discussion, but it's just another fun element and storyline to May, and that can't be bad.

Despite being social media savvy and having an understanding of how all of it works, there are times where I am still completely fascinated by the wide reach media and social media actually has. The information about today's test just moved so quickly, from video to lap times to interviews, that anything you wanted to know was easily available and accessible.

It made me think back to when I was first starting to get interested in the Indy 500, and how I got my information then. When I went to IMS the first time, in 1979, we only lived an hour from Indy, so we got to see the wrap-up shows on the news and then got to read everything in long form the next day in the Indianapolis Star.

A year later, we moved to Central Illinois, and for the most part my only lifeline to Indy -- other than Pole Day when I was there and lines of agate in the Peoria Journal Star -- was a month-long subscription to the Star.

Not the digital edition, mind you, since that was 15 years away, but the real, actual newspaper delivered to our house on Apple Drive via US Mail. Sometimes I would get lucky and the paper would arrive a day after it was published, but usually it was 2-3 days before I got my hands on it.

Then again, that didn't matter to me. As soon as I got home I would tear the brown paper the Star was wrapped in and open it up to the sports section. Despite being "old news" it felt new to me. I may have heard a little news or saw some speeds or something, but not enough to spoil it for me. I loved reading the stories and seeing the great photography -- the Star had some amazing shooters back then -- and for a while I felt like I was back in Indiana again, living for the 500.

Of course, I still live for the 500, but it's funny to think about how 30 years ago I would wait 2-3 days for information, and how now I really can't wait 2-3 minutes. I HAVE to know, right now!

While I love the speed, it's fun to romanticize about those days, because it was through those newspapers, those words combined with my sense of imagination, that I developed the love for the 500 I have today. Back then, Indy was this mystical place that my eyes only got to see once a year, but in my imagination I was there pretty much every day. The newspaper was what brought it to life for me.

I'm sure people still do that today, but what's left to the imagination, you know? There is nothing to picture in your mind, it's all delivered to you in an instant. I love technology and everything it brings to our world, but I wouldn't trade those days of jumping off the school bus, grabbing the paper out of the mailbox and devouring it as quickly as possible for anything.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Help Wanted: Good Writers

Social media has been a sad place today with the stream of tweets coming from people at ESPN who have lost their jobs today. While loudmouth Stephen A. Smith and his $3.5-million per salary is safe, good, solid journalists like Ed Werder, Jayson Stark, Dana O'Neill and many others are now looking for work.

With the massive amounts of internet sites devoted to sports, as well as sport-specific networks for the NFL, NBA, MLB, and networks devoted to conferences like the Big 10 and SEC, most of them will find work, which is a good thing.

Still, it's frustrating, for several reasons. First of all, as with most layoffs, the people who made the decisions that put a company in a predicament get to keep their jobs. Despite writing checks he obviously can't cash and not having the foresight to see the trends in how fans get their information, John Skipper keeps his job, just like he did after the last two rounds of layoffs in 2013 and 2015.

Another thing that angers me is that it's obvious that sports media would rather have a bunch of loudmouth meatheads screaming ridiculous hot takes at each other that have about a 30-minute shelf life than dig deep and do real, actual reporting. Thankfully, some of that does still exist at ESPN with Bob Ley and his staff, but unfortunately they are typically regulated to one of the lesser ESPN channels at times that most people aren't watching.

Personally, I've reached the point that I only watch games on ESPN. I don't need a 90-minute pregame show for an NBA or NFL game, and I find the yelling back and forth on other shows as an insult to my sports intelligence. If I'm watching pre-or post-game coverage, I want to learn something, I want something of substance.

Unfortunately, we've been conned into believing that the only people that have an opinion worth anything are those that "played the game". Hence, the meathead mentality. The only problem is the next time one of the many idiots ESPN trots out on its shows says something that actually contributes to the discussion and teaches the fans something, it will be the first time.

But the thing that bothers me the most about this move, as well as many other layoff situations over the years, is that it's a clear signal that no one cares about good writing anymore.

As a sportswriter, I've gone through this before. While thankfully my day jobs kept me gainfully employed for over 25 years, I was laid off from my part-time position at the Aurora Beacon News in April, 2009. In a strange twist, I started working for the paper as a stringer the next day (and got paid more, but it made business sense because the money came out of a different till -- or something like that), but many of the full-timers didn't get that offer.

I'm not alone...most of the people I know in my little writing circle have either lost their jobs at one time or another or had to take a buyout and leave. Some found work, some are still stringers years later and have never found a full-time gig, and others just left the industry altogether.

To take their place, newspapers have hired untrained stringers who are more than happy to do a game for $85, but have no idea how to write a good, compelling story. Of course, that's an industry-wide trend, as internet sports media outlets have done the same thing, handed the keys to eager people, many of whom work for free under the con that they will get paid down the road, who might have an internet connection but are ridiculously short on writing talent. As a result, they get sloppy content that fills a space but does little else.

I get it, the whole thing is about traffic and clicks. AP writer Jenna Fryer's two Fernando Alonso IndyCar stories probably got more clicks in the span of a few days than this little blog has in the last two years. Her job is based on that, so it's no surprise that she will paint stories in a way that gets what she needs.

I get it, because getting clicks and selling papers has always been part of doing business, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Another thing that bothers me is that there are a lot of people in media that use their position to try and create personal relationships with the people they are covering. Creating a sense of comfort and trust is vital to a reporter's toolbox, but at the same time, a line has to be drawn as well. That line seems to be getting blurred more and more every day. I see a lot of people who seem to be more interested in becoming friends with drivers and taking selfies with them than doing real reporting.

(Editor's note: I see that more and more, and I think it's the height of unprofessionalism. If you have a media credential around your neck, you shouldn't be posting pics of you and drivers on social media. I've had lots of opportunities to do the same over the last year or so and refrained because it's just not right. End of rant.)

I know, I know, I'm old school! But when I started my writing career 17 years ago, the guys I worked with were true pros. When I first started working with them, I really couldn't believe it! I'd read their stuff in the paper for years and now I was on staff with them? It was crazy.

What was even better, though, was that from the beginning they treated me as an equal. They were always there to offer suggestions or answer questions that I may have had. Sometimes we would "double staff" an event and I would pay attention to how they did their jobs and the questions they would ask afterwards.

I wanted to be a good writer, I wanted to be like them, and while I am admittedly not the most talented writer in the world, if you read one of my stories over the years you would know that I always tried my hardest to write the best story that I could, whether it was for a city house league baseball or softball game, a college football game, or the PGA Tour.

That's part of the reason I got out of the sportswriting gig a couple of years ago, because that's not what the editors wanted. They didn't want a good, well-written story, they wanted someone to go to an event, keep stats and grab a couple of quotes. Or, they wanted a story written before the event even started. That just wasn't me.

I hope I'm not coming across as snobbish. I'm really not, it's just that I have tried my entire career to be a professional, and to represent who I'm writing for and the writing profession itself with integrity. Sadly, that is becoming less and less of a job requirement.

I'll always hold out hope that good writing, and good writers, will always have a place, but it gets hard sometimes. I'll admit, there are times where crossing over to the "dark side" is appealing. In my personal life, I am a mixture of quirky, funny, sarcastic and at times profane. Writing with no filter would be pretty easy to do, and it would probably lead to a lot more site clicks and maybe more attention.

But that isn't me. There are certain areas of my life where I take pride in my integrity, and writing is one of them. Heck, I've been serious about my writing since I was a teenager, so I can't quit now!

The dream of mine is that people will get sick of the noise and demand the good writing. Everything in life goes in cycles, and this is no different. Many of the people who lost their jobs today have been at this for more than 20 years, meaning they have been there and done that when it comes to what the public wants.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a member of Generation X, and back then we were what was wrong with the world. But you know what happened? We grew up and our interests changed, as Rocky Balboa said in Rocky IV...we became "normal people". Millennials will eventually do the same, and the landscape will change again.

As a writer, I'm sticking to my guns because I think (or hope) (or dream) that what I write and how I go about my job every day will become relevant once again. Even in my racing PR pursuits, as frustrated as I am with the culture right now, I know that what I find important -- good writing, smart, constant social media and good photography -- will eventually be what drivers and teams want. I believe that with all my heart.

So despite what happened today at ESPN, and what has happened with other organizations around the country, I'm staying faithful to my core beliefs. The written word has always been important, and the desire for people to read it will never go away.

We'll be back.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Nigel vs. Fernando

I have to admit, I was as stunned as anyone by the announcement yesterday that current McLaren Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso will be driving for Andretti Autosport in this year's Indianapolis 500. Not only can't I believe the announcement, I also can't believe that it was all pulled off with so much secrecy.

Big props to Michael Andretti for getting the deal done, and a tip of the cap to Stefan Wilson, who put the pursuit of his own program for May on hold so that they could get everything arranged. I'm sure that wasn't an easy decision, Wilson, like Pippa Mann, works pretty much year-round to secure funding for a 500 ride, so to eschew that for a year for a greater good has to be absolutely commended.

There is no doubt that this is huge news, and the impact of it covered the entire planet. To me that shows two things: 1) the popularity of F1 and its drivers and 2) the legitimacy of the Indy 500. I hope that the people who think that the 500 has lost popularity and luster are paying attention, because the news and the reaction to it show that rumors of the demise of the 500 have been greatly exaggerated.

Many are comparing this to 1993, when reigning F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell signed a two-year deal with Newman-Haas Racing, finished third at the Indy 500 and went on to win five races and the CART title that season.

So if you had to put each situation head-to-head, which one is "bigger"? Mansell taking America by storm or Alonso giving up his McLaren seat for the Grand Prix of Monaco for a one-off in the 500?

You know, with the spread of information and the power of social media that exists, and the following Alonso has makes the news of his announcement bigger, but having experienced Mansell in 1993, I think that was a bigger deal. Maybe not in terms of current metrics and the idea of "moving the needle" because Alonso will probably do both on a greater scale, but from a racing standpoint, Mansell's 1993 season to me ranks as one of the greatest of all-time.

Mansell came here off of a 1992 season that saw him win nine Grands Prix and finish second three times in the 15-race schedule. In 1991, he had won five races and notched four runner-up finishes while finishing second in the World Championship standings behind Ayrton Senna.

Like IndyCar, Formula 1 racing was at an absolute apex in the early 1990s. When I heard the news that Mansell was coming to drive in the US, I thought it was a "larger than life" announcement. Here was a guy who not only was the reigning F1 champion, he was at the absolute apex of his career.

It was so exciting to think about Mansell coming in and banging helmets with the likes of 1992 CART champ Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, and others who were at or near the apex of their careers as well. Not to mention, he was teammates with Mario Andretti, who won the final race of his illustrious career and finished sixth in the seasons standings at the age of 53.

Then Mansell comes out and absolutely manhandles the car and the field to win at Surfer's Paradise! After a bad crash at Phoenix that saw him suffer a back injury that caused him to miss the race, Mansell returned to finish third at Long Beach. So by the time he got to Indianapolis that year, the excitement for his debut was pretty much off the charts.

I was there when he went to qualify, and the buzz was unmistakable. And the race? Well, you can read my recap of the 1993 race here.

Yes, I'm biased. The 1993 race remains my most favorite of the 500s I have seen in person, and I was rooting hard for Mansell to win that day. I still believe his drive in that race was nothing short of phenomenal. It's hard to explain if you haven't seen it, or have the context of that era, but he drove that race on pure talent, and he raced so incredibly hard. In the end, it was his inexperience that got him, as he was snookered by Fittipaldi on a restart with 16 laps to go.

He eventually won four more races that year, including the ovals at Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Michigan and Nazareth. In all he was just a Tasmanian Devil that year, winning races with talent and brute force. I still look at that season with amazement to this day.

That's why while I am happy to see Alonso running the Indy 500, love the exposure he's bringing, adding to the buzz of the 101st Indy 500 and have a hope that he kicks ass because it would be super cool, it's just so hard to compare that to the impact Mansell made. I'd even feel that way if Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel were doing the same thing, a one-off is just that, a come-into-town-and-leave sort of thing. If they were here, at the height of their career, for a full season, maybe I would think a bit differently.

I guess that's why I see Mansell's deal differently, because the buzz started as soon as he signed, and it didn't let up all year long. He was also a guy you either liked or didn't, and his flair for the dramatic -- like his over the top grimacing when he got in and out of the car after his back injury -- gave him a kind of had a "black hat" thing. And then there was his talent, which was absolutely prodigious.

In the end it's an apples to oranges thing, and there is nothing wrong with that, because this discussion doesn't have a wrong answer. It just depends on your point of view. I choose Mansell because I saw it happen and got to experience it myself. If you didn't, chances are you may not feel the same way.

I guess I just wanted to share my experience in 1993 for the purpose of context. I love IndyCar 2017, but Nigel Mansell circa 1993 was pretty cool too.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, March 13, 2017

All Things Considered Pagenaud Good With Runner-Up Finish

St. Petersburg, Fla. (March 12, 2017) – Sometimes even “well-oiled machines” run into an occasional malfunction.

Things ran pretty smoothly for Simon Pagenaud and his Team Penske crew in 2016 as they rolled to five wins and eight podiums on their way to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar championship. Unfortunately, the 2017 season didn’t start the same way at the Firestone IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Pete, as problems with the new brake system put the team behind as soon as the weekend got started.

But they kept grinding away, and got a little luck too, and as a result, Pagenaud finished the day in the runner-up spot behind Sebastien Bourdais, the same finish he had last year at the start of his championship campaign.

“It was a difficult weekend, certainly one of the most difficult ones we’ve had in a long time,” Pagenaud said. “It was such a well-oiled machine last year and you throw one new component, in this case, the brakes, and it goes back to zero and you go back and start again.”

Pagenaud struggled with the No. 1 car through three practice sessions, then could only manage to qualify for Sunday’s 110 lap race around St. Pete’s 1.8-mile, 14-turn course. The team went to work on Saturday night and the car came to life on Sunday, with Pagenaud saying he felt like he was “back home” in the cockpit.

Like Bourdais, who started 21st, Pagenaud dodged a bullet on the very first lap of the race when he had to work around a Turn 3 accident between Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball. The team had decided to pit a little earlier than the leaders in a quest to pick up some good track position, and luck was shining on them again when a yellow came out a couple of laps later and Pagenaud was shuffled up to the point.

He led Laps 27-36 and was up front for 13 laps on the day. Needing to save fuel, he wasn’t able to make a run at Bourdais, and finished 10.3508 seconds behind his fellow countryman.

“We regrouped and that’s where this team is incredible. This is a championship team, regrouping and understanding the issue we were having in qualifying,” Pagenaud said. “The car was fantastic in the race. After that we were a bit lucky with strategy, but that was the plan, and thanks to Kyle Moyer and Ben Bretzman for their work on that. We had to save fuel to manage to the end but Bourdais was untouchable.

“We’re happy with second.”

Bourdais "Speechless" After Improbable St. Pete Win

St. Petersburg, Fla. (March 12, 2017) -- When Sebastien Bourdais said down with his Dale Coyne Racing engineer, Craig Hampson, Saturday night to work through strategy for Sunday’s IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete, he didn’t think there was much they could do to fix their predicament.

Bourdais and his No. 19 DCR machine had been one of the quicker cars around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, but a first-lap crash in Turn 13 in qualifying Saturday left the 38-year-old Frenchman – and current St. Pete resident -- at the back of the field in the 21st starting position. 

A lot was going to need to go Bourdais’ way if he wanted to get to the front when the green flag fell, so imagine his surprise Sunday when 110 laps later he found himself covered in confetti in Victory Lane and celebrating the 36th win of his IndyCar career. Bourdais was able to take advantage of a yellow flag in the first third of the race to get to the front, then led 69 of the final 71 laps to win for DCR in his first race back with the team he had competed with in 2011.

“I’m speechless to be honest,” Bourdais said. “To come up on top with a lot of family and friends here, and the community supporting me, it’s a great feeling.”

Bourdais and the No. 19 DCR machine had been quick all weekend, but in qualifying Saturday he had a first-lap incident that left him without a time and starting at the back of the field.

 “You are thinking that you are having a great weekend, you have a good car that was on rails, is consistently fast, and you think things are going to go to plan,” Bourdais said. “Then Saturday, I felt miserable about myself because I (thought I) threw it all away. I left the meeting thinking that we were going to do the best we can but there was no way we were going to make any headway.”

The race itself didn’t get off to a very good start, either, as Bourdais had to negotiate a Turn 3 crash involving Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball. But once he got going, he starting picking up momentum, and was knocking on the door of the Top 10 by the time he made his first pit stop.

The plan was to pit early and hope for a yellow flag to get track positon, and that’s exactly what happened. With the leaders stretching the fuel window a little longer, they were caught out on a Lap 26 caution that flew as the result of contact between Mikhail Aleshin and Tony Kanaan. That flipped the field and sent Bourdais – as well as Pagenaud, who after starting 14th was on the same strategy – to the front, where they stayed the rest of the race.

“We wanted to pit on the (early) side of the window because we didn’t want to get caught up by a yellow, then everyone in front of you except for one guy gets caught up and next thing you know we are P2,” Bourdais said. “What happened Saturday is pretty irrelevant at that point. At that point in my head I was thinking I was happy with where I was at.”

With the exception of Laps 55-56, which were led by Takuma Sato, Bourdais and Pagenaud led the rest of the race, with Bourdais passing Pagenaud for good on Lap 84.

Pagenaud was content with his runner-up finish as he had brake difficulties all week that led to a poor qualifying effort as well on Saturday. He and Bourdais were teammates when the pair raced in France a decade ago, and was happy to see his friend and countryman win in his first outing with his new team.

“It’s 1-2 for the French! Sorry for the French Revolution, guys,” Pagenaud said. “When everything is right (Bourdais) is one of those guys that is hard to touch, and (Sunday) he showed his strength. He won Champ Cars four years in a row, he’s one of the greats.”

Bourdais’ win breaks a tie with Bobby Unser for sixth all-time, and moves him just three behind Al Unser, Sr. for fifth.

Scott Dixon battled back from a mid-race mechanical hiccup to finish third, while Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sato rounded out the Top 5. James Hinchcliffe, who led 21 laps and dominated the race up until the Lap 26 yellow, finished ninth.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Live From St. Pete

Good morning!

Good morning from St. Pete! I'm putting my sportswriter hat on and will be live blogging the events from the media center -- except for the times I go out and actually watch some of the race. When I'm in the media center I'll be watching the TV feed and listening to the IndyCar Radio broadcast.

While I'm sure much of what I report will be a bit redundant to some, it will also be sprinkled with my own commentary. This is the editorial part of my coverage today, so I'll throw a lot of my opinions in here. I'll have the more serious stuff out later tonight or tomorrow when I get home and sleep until noon to catch up on what I have lost this week.

If you ever want to work in racing, there are two things you need to know: 1) you won't sleep a lot and 2) you will do a ton of walking, especially if you work in one of the developmental series as we don't get the best paddock assignments.

The media center actually runs right along the straight between Turns 9 and 10, which has already seen some action today. During the IndyCar warm-up this morning, Ryan Hunter-Reay lost his brakes and crashed hard into the tire barriers. Walking in I saw him riding back to the paddock on a scooter so it looks like he will be OK.

The car sustained some pretty heavy damage, so we will see if they decide to fix it or go to the backup car. His shunt no doubt will bring more concern among the teams, as this weekend they have experienced lots of problems with the new brake package.

Warm-up is over and the Indy Lights race is about to begin. Here's hoping for a fast and safe day of racing.

More on the warm-up

Looking at the time sheet from this morning, it appears that Scott Dixon is the early favorite to win the race, and Honda might been resurrected.

Dixon turned a lap of 1;01.9292, while Helio Castroneves was second and defending champ Simon Pagenaud was third. Again, who knows what everyone was working on this morning, but Dixon has been fast in every session this weekend. He has finished second three times here, but surprisingly has never won.

If you look at the combined results from all sessions, Honda has the six fastest times and seven of the top 9. As I blogged about earlier in the week, Chip Ganassi pretty much always gets what he wants.

Castroneves will be interesting to watch today. He's won three times at St. Pete and has stood on the podium six times in 11 starts, but after a sub-par qualifying effort he will begin the race in the 16th starting position. With teammate Pagenaud starting 14th, does Penske Racing take one of them off-strategy in an effort to get them to the front? Both will be starting the race on black tires.

Speaking of tires, the top 13 starters will go on alternates, as will Marco Andretti (starting 15th) and Sebastien Bourdais (21st). Mikhail Aleshin (17th), Ed Jones (18th), JR Hildebrand (19th) and Conor Daly (20th) will start on blacks.

Indy Lights

Pole-sitter Colton Herta, who finished second in the Race 1 yesterday, took the lead into the first turn and never gave it up to pick up the first Mazda Road to Indy win of his career. Santi Urrita was second and Pato O'Ward finished third.

Herta, of course, is the son of Bryan Herta, who won the Lights title in 1993, won four times in CART and IndyCar and has two Indy 500 wins as an owner. Colton leaves St. Pete with the points lead and will be back on track in a Lights car at Barber in April.

While his name and early racing success. naturally brings high expectations, Herta said he's focusing on development and knows they aren't going to win all of the races. And besides, since he only turns 17 in a couple of weeks, it's going to be a couple of years before he can think of moving up the final step of the MRTI ladder.

"I have plenty of time (to get there)," he said. "To come out of a this weekend with a championship lead, we just have to work at keeping it going."

A member of the media asked Herta if he told the instructor when he went to get his driver's license that he was a race car driver. Herta said he did not, but did mention that he passed his behind the wheel test the first time, unlike his dad, who needed two tries.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Friday at St. Pete

St. Petersburg, Fla. -- After a crazy first practice session that saw Marco Andretti with the fastest time, Honda powering eight of the 10 fastest cars, and five Chevys sitting in the bottom eight, order was restored in the afternoon session as teams geared up for Saturday qualifying at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete.

Thanks to an off-season switch to Honda by Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda place six cars in the Top 8, and while there were a lot of surprises in the morning session, the names on the top of the speed chart later in the day were more than a bit familiar.

Scott Dixon, who surprisingly enough does not count a win at St. Pete among his 40 career victories, covered the 1.8-mile, 14-turn circuit in one minute, 2.5591 seconds to lead the way, while teammates Tony Kanaan (1:02.8545) and Charlie Kimball (1:02.8748) were third and fourth, respectively.

The only driver who managed to break up the Ganassi monopoly was Team Penske's Will Power, who was second-quick at (1:02.8146). St. Pete resident Sebastien Bourdais, driving on his "home track", was fifth-best (1:02.9056) in his return to Dale Coyne Racing.

With all of the teams on different strategies and agendas as far as what they wanted to accomplish Friday, Dixon wasn't interested in "winning Friday", instead he and the team want to focus on building through the weekend.

"Friday doesn't pay anything and doesn't mean anything," Dixon said. "Hopefully we can continue to improve the car for tomorrow and the race on Sunday. (Saturday) should be interesting once everyone turns it up."

Power rebounded quickly from a crash in Turn 10 in the first session, which was a bit of deja vu as he crashed in the same place in the same session a year ago. That incident eventually led to Power missing the race, but this time he just suffered damage to the right rear of the car and will be in the mix to win for the fourth time on the streets of St. Pete.

Despite the speed chart looking like Honda "dominated" the session, the reality is that it was more parity than anything else. As is usually the case in IndyCar less than one second separated Dixon from Spencer Pigot, who was 18th on the grid in 1:03.4909.

"The grid looks pretty nicely mixed up with Honda and Chevy, which is great for competition," Power said. "It could make for a really competitive year."

IndyCar qualifying will begin at 2:55 this afternoon.

Track changes: Much of the circuit was repaved since last year's race, with the rest of the repaving scheduled between now and 2018, and the changes were met with positive reviews

"The track is nice and smooth, it’s a nicely done street course," Power said. "It’s kind of set the standard for what street courses should be. 

"We have a lot of lanes (now) to pass on. The bodykits have made the racing tougher, and closer. But the tires degrade quickly, which makes for good racing. I think we’ll have a good race."

The teams were thrown for a bit of a loop Friday morning when they arrived at the track to find that Turn 3 had been changed overnight as the result of several incidents in support series practice sessions the night before. About 180 feet of curbing was added to the corner to round it off in an effort to keep cars from impacting the wall on exit.

Dixon was very complimentary of the effort made to have the turn ready by Friday morning, and said the change should help some of the other series racing here, For the IndyCar machines, it narrowed up the corner and could take someone by surprise.

"It's different through Turn 3 because it used to be a flat corner," Dixon said. "(The change) was made more for the car with less downforce, but it made the corner tricky, and it's something that could catch you out at any moment."

Looking long term: After a New York Times piece ran Friday that pointed out the postivie growth of the series IndyCar announced Friday that long-term contracts had been secured with all four series manufacturers: Dallara, Firestone, Chevy and Honda. 

That type of commitment had been missing for quite some time in open wheel racing, and both Power and Dixon, whose careers overlap both the split and unified series era, feel that securing such deals will only benefit open wheel racing's future.

"You can see the momentum and the continuity (building)," Power said. "The drivers, teams and manufacturers shows strength in the series. There was once a time where we had different drivers every year, but now we have the same drivers, the same teams, and it’s heading in a great direction."

Dixon agreed, but like many he hopes a third engine manufacturer could be added to the mix as well.

"Kudos to everyone in the series and Jay( Frye) as well," Dixon said. "It shows that the manufacturers know that this is the right place to be. As we have all spoken about, if we can get an addition of one more (OEM) it will be ideal, and hopefully that will happen."