Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Happy Trails Carl Edwards

As I approach my 50th birthday, I have to say that few things shock me anymore. As I've gotten older I've realized the term "shocking" when applied to news is usually hyperbole, like Clemson "shocking" Alabama.

Really? I watched the game and there was nothing shocking about it, Clemson is a great team and they had the better players. Actually I kind of saw it coming, and everyone else should have too. So "shocking" news doesn't really shock me any longer.

(Editor's note: I turn 48 on May 25, I merely throw the approaching 50 thing out every so often as I'm trying to ease myself into the thought of my sixth decade of life.)

That said, I was pretty shocked to hear that NASCAR driver Carl Edwards had decided to step out of his car and pursue "other interests" with a year to go in his contract. Edwards is just 37 and back in November was a clean restart away from having the chance to win a championship. So, to step away now seems a bit strange.

Needless to say, the speculation in the NASCAR community is running rampant, and no one seems to be coming closer to the reason why. Don't expect the reclusive Edwards to give up his reasons in his Wednesday press conference, either. He doesn't work that way.

And, frankly, he owes no one an explanation. He has his reasons and whatever those are, they are valid.

I think the answer is simple: the guy just wanted to go home.

No question, the life of a racer, while glamorous at times, is tough, especially in NASCAR's way-too-long 38-week season. Their season is so long (and unnecessarily so, because the product has become a dog), women conceive a child and give birth to it in less time than it takes to run a Cup season.

That's a lot of time on the road. After joining John Cummiskey Racing at Road America in June, I spent about 20 days away from home the rest of the year. A very modest number, but that's for four race weekends and two test sessions. Multiply that out to a long race season and include commercials, photo shoots and sponsor commitments, and you are looking at well over 200 days away from home every year.

Lots of drivers have dealt with it by bringing their family with them, and I think that is great. It's probably not the easiest thing, to raise a family as part of a traveling show, but it seems like the families that do make the best of it and seem very close because of it.

That wasn't the case for Edwards' family, which includes his wife -- who is a neurologist -- and their two kids. A very private man, Carl is also very protective of his family, to the point where very few people know anything about them. While I take my hat off to him for that, it also means that when he hits the road, he goes by himself, meaning probably 50 or so times a year he kisses his family goodbye and leaves them for days at a time. That has to wear on someone after a while.

One thing I always thought about Edwards is that racing doesn't consume him. He loves to race, he loves to drive and loves to compete, but at the same time when the day is over he doesn't think about it all that much. It's his job, he's very, very good at it, but there is more to his life than that.

I don't think of this as his "retirement", I think of it more as a "sabbatical". I think he just wants to go home and stay there for a while, to support his wife in her career and to wake up and see his kids every day. As a dad to a college junior and high school sophomore, I get it. Once you have kids of your own you are cognizant of the passage of time because it's right in front of you. The little tiny things you brought home from the hospital grow and learn every day, and before you know it they are embarking on their own lives.

Edwards is in a wonderful position, he's had a solid and satisfying career that while it may be missing a couple of pieces (like a championship or Daytona 500 win), his 28 victories ties him for 26th place all-time, and he's made by some estimates upwards of $80-$90 million in his career. If this is it for him, he's left a legacy of a really nice career.

In my mind, two options exist for a guy like him: be happy and walk away satisfied with what he's accomplished, or continue chasing things that may never come. Given what we are beginning to learn about concussions and head injuries, and the fact that he has had some nasty crashes in his career, why not just go with option A?

Option A is walking away and choosing health and family, and I have to say I can respect that. There are a couple of other drivers out there, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who I wish would make the same choice. I really do worry what will happen to Junior if he has another concussion.

One thing that really sticks with me from my time as a sportswriter is that pro athletes are just people who happen to have really cool jobs, but just because they have those jobs doesn't mean they aren't immune from or struggle with the same things the rest of us do.

I remember once following Tiger Woods around a golf course for a story I was working on, and after following him for a couple of days I realized I wouldn't switch my life with his for a second. I would love to play golf for a living, but being under a microscope and being under constant pressures from all directions would exhaust me. And from what I've read is going on in Tiger's life now, it's done the same to him.

At a certain point, the money becomes irrelevant because there is so much of it. They are still human beings with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. If his heart is telling him to stay home with his family, support his wife's career or chase another passion in his life, who am I do judge? The only person he has to answer to is himself.

If that's behind his decision, I have a lot of respect for him. Whatever his reasons, happy trails, Carl, you had a heck of a career.








Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Tale of Three Tracks

Those of you who are fans of this space know that thanks to my wife's job and my association with John Cummiskey Racing, I've visited a lot of race tracks this year.

If you count my visit to my local Rockford Speedway back in April, I have visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Memphis Motorsports Park, as well as street courses in Toronto, Monaco and Singapore.

This week I was pretty busy and added three more to my list, and all three have their own distinct personalities and backstories. Two are stops on the Verizon IndyCar series, and the third, unfortunately, is a part of the history of open wheel racing, where it will probably remain forever.

My first stop was at Barber Motorsports Park, where JCR was among several USF2000 teams testing for the 2017 season. It was my first time there and I was completely impressed. What an amazing facility, and one place where TV does no justice to how cool the place really is.

My friend Ross, who I have known since high school and lives in the area, says Barber is much more beautiful in April when it is all greened up, but even though it was pretty dormant and brown, it was still stunning with its rolling hills and natural beauty.

On Tuesday I drove around to various spots on the course and discovered there were some awesome spots to view the action all over the course. Unlike a lot of natural terrain road courses, Barber is very compact and doesn't take up a lot of space, so from many vantage points is possible to see a lot of the course from no matter where you sit.

My favorite spot was along the backstretch, where you can see about three-fourths of the course, with the potential to see cars going in three different directions: along the front stretch, through Turn 5 and all along the back portion of the course.

This may come as a surprise to most people, but despite being on-site at Road America, Toronto and Mid-Ohio for an entire race weekend, I didn't actually stay for the IndyCar race. Part of it was because by the time our events finished for the weekend I had spent 30-40 hours at the track working, and, in the case of Toronto, I had a long drive home and just wanted to get on the road.

I've already decided, however, that I'm staying for the Barber race, it looks to be a can't-miss event!

Another track I visited was Pocono Raceway, a.k.a. the "Tricky Triangle". Darcy had a business trip that took her to Eastern Pennsylvania and then New York, so I tagged along so we could spend a couple of days in Manhattan.

Our hotel was in Bethlehem, PA, which is about a 45-minute drive from the track. Thursday I jumped into our Nissan 370Z rental and headed up.

The drive up is mostly on some twisty, two-lane roads that go through a few small towns, and, as it turns out, up some really large hills. It's kind of a
trivial thing, I know, but it was interesting to see that the track sits at about 1,850 feet above sea level, making it, by my best guess, the highest track on the schedule.

The track itself looks like it sits on land that was cut out of the trees and leveled off, because it is completely surrounded by forests. Still, with its huge front-stretch grandstand -- which looks way bigger than it appears on television -- it cuts an imposing figure as you drive up to it.

With track tours done for the year in
October, there wasn't much else to do except to check in at the office to see if there was anywhere I could go to take pictures or see other spots on the track. The person I spoke to in the office pointed me to a viewing stand just at the exit of Turn 2.

Actually, the view from there was pretty cool. One thing that really startled me is just how bare the infield was, which from the camping areas or the top of the grandstands would make it a great place to see the cars pretty much all the way around the track. That's kind of a given now with the
way tracks are designed now, but Pocono is 45 years old so I think it it unique in that sense.

Actually, where I was standing would've been a great place to watch the race, but I think a perfect place might have been to my right, which was where I see RVs parked during both the IndyCar and Cup weekends. That looks like it would be a lot of fun. Either way, getting to finally see Pocono in person makes me want to go see a race there. While the USF2000 series won't be there next year, I'll get there someday.

Before heading to Pocono, I had made one other stop. Since the next town over from Bethlehem was Nazareth, I drove over there to see if I could find what was left of Nazareth Speedway, which was once part of the IndyCar schedule but has been closed since 2004.

I've written about Nazareth before, back in 2012 when I found a "save Nazareth Speedway" Facebook page. But I really wanted to see the track for myself.

It didn't take all that long to find it, and
I drove around trying to find a place where I could get a better view. That led me to a side road and a gravel path that looked like it had once served as parking. One gravel path led to another and before I knew it I pulled up to a fence that had conveniently been pulled back far enough that I could squeeze through.

So, the answer is, yes, I trespassed! And given the survey of replies to one of my Twitter posts, most of you would've done the same thing!

Anyway, I walked along a path and cut
through some trees and brush, and I was to the wall at the entry to Turn 3. The photo above was looking back down the backstretch, and the one to the left was looking towards Turn 4. Of course, the first photo in this sequence is of the start-finish line.

I climbed over the wall and worked my way all the way around to the frontstretch -- hence the start-finish line photo. I really wanted to completely walk the track but I also didn't want to get back to my car and find a law enforcement officer or upset landowner waiting for me. So I grabbed a few more photos and worked my way back to the car.

You can find photos at the bottom of this post, but when I went back and looked at some old photos of the track and watched some videos on YouTube, it was hard to believe that I was looking at the same place that had seen so much racing history, which actually dated back over a century on that property.

It's really sad to see what has happened to the track, but even sadder is the fact that we will never see racing on that site ever again. The track is in such a state that it could never be rehabilitated, and just mowing it down and building a new track on the site would cost millions of dollars no one wants to spend.

Like so many tracks around the country that have shuttered over the years, it's sad to see it happen, but, as I mentioned in my blog post almost five years ago, time just marches on. Still, I was glad to be able to get there and walk the track a little, just to say that I did.











Friday, June 10, 2016

Monaco Track Walk

I've been fortunate to have traveled with my wife Darcy to some really cool places in the last couple of years, but if you had told me I would ever have made it to Monaco, I wouldn't have believed you!

Yet, here we are! Darcy's boss was a panelist for the Ernst/Young World Entrepreneur of the Year conference, and he wanted Darcy to come so I tagged along. It's been a fun couple of days here, Monaco is a beautiful city, and while I've seen lots of wealthy, beautiful people, and tons of amazing yachts and supercars, I've also discovered that it is full of nice, everyday people too.

Of course, I was excited about the opportunity to check out the course used for the Monaco Grand Prix. First run in 1929, the race uses the sometimes narrow streets around town, and while the race is mostly a parade of cars because it's so hard to pass here, it's location and history gives it the status of one of the world's most famous and prestigious races -- and rightfully so.

I actually lapped the 2.07-mile course four times! Once as a track walk, twice as a runner and another time later in the day when Darcy and I went on a leisurely stroll.

I discovered that it is a pretty interesting course. Again, very narrow, with most of the streets averaging about 8-12 paces across, but one thing I never really knew about it was the massive elevation changes. Watching the race on TV or checking it out on YouTube, there really isn't justice given to how extreme they really are.

So, although I started from the Fairmont Hotel where we are staying and jumped onto the course at the famous Fairmont Hairpin, we'll get started with my selfie at the start/finish line.

The race starts on one of the busier streets in town, one which is lined with restaurants and shops. What is so amazing to me is how they are able to squeeze grandstands and stuff along this street, much like the start/finish line in Singapore.

Once the drivers take the green, the course begins an uphill ascent
that continues until the cars reach the Hotel de Paris and the Monte Carlo casino. In just about one kilometer, the course goes up almost 150 feet! I'll tell you what, running up that hill was a beast!

Speaking of running, last month I ran the Indy Mini marathon, which includes a lap of the Speedway. My total time to run around the track was 28:03, which I was really happy with. My lap here in Monaco was 24 minutes, so you can tell the difference the big hill makes!

Does this photo show a little bit as to how steep the hill is? Crazy.

Once at the top of the hill, the hotel and casino await. It's super narrow up there as the cars go through a little bit of a roundabout in front of the hotel. Both buildings are so beautiful, I've been looking at photos and old videos from the race and it's kind of cool how you can superimpose either a car from, say, 50 years ago, and a current one racing by the hotel and the view is really similar.

Actually, if you are a fan of the movie Grand Prix, as I am, the scene where Stoddard's wife wakes up and runs to the balcony of her room is at the hotel right next to the Hotel de Paris at the Hermitage. 

You can't see it in this photo, but the hotel is undergoing a big renovation. Across the way at the casino, they were filming a commercial, and a camera crew was repeatedly shooting three people walking across the street and into the casino. That was kind of cool.

Once through the roundabout, the cars start to go back downhill again, and this one is even steeper than the first as they wind their way back towards the Mediterranean Sea. The street is still crazy narrow and drops into a hard right-hander that takes the driver by the Fairmont Hairpin.

Imagine busting it down this street at about 100 miles an hour!

As you can see, there is still a lot of guardrail up, but it is being removed bit by bit ever day. They took the guardrail down by the Fairmont on Thursday, and the teardown of the big grandstands by the harbor is an ongoing project that will probably take another couple of weeks.

So the cars head down this street and bang a right and just keep going downhill. That takes them to the hairpin. Referencing Grand Prix again, I noticed in the movie that the Fairmont hadn't been constructed at the time
and there was just a set of grandstands there. Now the hotel has such a great view that the rooms that face the race course are in high demand.

Actually, the rooms that are good for viewing have a sign on them, which I'll post at the bottom. I peeked into one of those rooms when housekeeping had a door open, and they are pretty swanky too.

This photo is looking up the street, and the cars would be coming towards you in the Grand Prix. This corner is super slow, with the cars going around it at
30-40 miles per hour. It's kind of interesting to be around there and to see and hear supercars going around that hairpin. I think the people driving those cars like to have a little bit of a feeling they are F1 drivers.

Here is the exit of the hairpin, not again the steep elevation loss. From where I took this picture, we are probably about 75 feet above sea level, and they will drop another 60 feet or so in the 400 meters from here.

It's pretty easy to follow the course from here. It's
basically you drive to the Mediterranean and turn right! That of course turns into the famous tunnel. The road through the tunnel is about as wide as the course will get, but it narrows quickly at the exit.

Three things make that tunnel tough: 1) the quick adjustment your eyes have to make coming out of the tunnel, 2) the narrowing of the street and 3) there's still more downhill to go!

I drove through that tunnel in our rental car, and even at 40-50 mph you still get a sensation of what it is like for the
drivers. In such a tight space I bet it looks pretty spectacular to see them drive through it.

The exit of the tunnel gives the drivers their first look at the harbor. Coming out of the tunnel, they head a bit downhill until a little kink turns them closer to the harbor. Of course, since that is the largest and flattest place in town, that is where the huge grandstands are put up.

I also drove through that area, and it is narrow and really twisty. What is funny is that to the driver's right there are a bunch of shops and cafes. Unfortunately
the guardrails were down in front of those establishments, so I don't know how close the cars get to them.

Even though much of them were taken down, the size of the grandstands there were pretty awesome. I can only imagine what it looks like to drive through there when they are full.

I'll throw a few more images down at the bottom, but I kind of like this one because you can see the shops and everything.

At this point, the lap is just about over! Near those clumps of trees is a quick right turn, uphill about 100 meters, and then another quick right that takes the cars onto the main straight and back towards the start finish line.

All in all, walking the course was a really interesting and enjoyable experience. One thing that really struck me is
that even though the course is slow, it is very technical and difficult to drive. Much like IMS, this race has pretty much run on the same course since the race began in 1929.

Back then, the cars were probably a little bit bigger, but they didn't go nearly as fast. Now, although components like suspensions and brakes are better, it's still a physical track for the drivers since there is so much shifting and g-forces going on.

And of course, I gave a lot of thought to the history of the race, and how drivers like Alberto Ascari, Juan Fangio, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Mario Andretti and so many others had driven those streets. But the one person I thought about a lot as I was walking was Ayrton Senna. Senna won the race six times and had several of the best drives of his career at Monaco.

In fact, his career was kickstarted here as his second place finish in 1985, and there are many epic YouTube
videos of him driving laps around the circuit.

What he did here was a large part of his legend.

Well, I hope you enjoyed our track walk. I've now been to three F1 tracks (Monza, Singapore, Monaco) and my next goal is to see a race at any of those sites, especially Monza and Monaco. Hopefully someday!


















Sunday, May 29, 2016

The 100th Indianapolis 500

So about three hours after the race ended, the boys and I arrived back at our hotel and I turned on ESPN. A few seconds later, I saw the following on their crawler:

"Alexander Rossi wins the 100th Indianapolis 500"

It REALLY did happen, didn't it? Truthfully I'm still trying to get what he did today wrapped around my head. In only his sixth IndyCar race -- and second oval -- the 24-year-old California native won in his maiden voyage around the Speedway.

If you did a little research on Rossi, like I did for my "I Hate Alexander Rossi" post, you'd know the guy is the real deal. Still, I don't think any of us expected him to do what he did on Sunday, drive from the middle to the back of the field back up front, and finally stretching his fuel 85 miles until the end of the race, and coasting across the finish line in an emotional, live-changing moment.

Rossi was surprised, and so were the rest of us. But in the end, a race isn't to see who is the fastest, it's to see who can navigate the race distance and cross the line better than anyone else, which is what he did.

I'll go into a lot more detail in my podcast later this week, but let's go through the first few finishers and some other notable storylines from the race.

Winner: Alexander Rossi. Many are calling him the "biggest surprise winner" in the first century of the Indy 500, and that may be true. But he had driven well since getting in the car two weeks ago, almost made the Fast Nine and qualified a solid 11tth overall. He ran a good race, stayed out of trouble, and trusted Bryan Herta on his final push to the finish.

Speaking of Herta, he's now won twice as an owner, and both of those came in underdog fashion. He had a nice career as a driver but has shown that when he has a capable car and driver he is pretty good at this owner thing.

Second place: Carlos Munoz. You had to be a little gutted for Carlos, as he drove a near perfect race and certainly deserved to win. With two seconds and a fourth in his four races, the Speedway and Munoz are an absolute fit for each other, and he will win someday.

Third place: Josef Newgarden. See Munoz, Carlos. Even though he has won races since coming to IndyCar, I thought Sunday was the best race Newgarden has driven in his career. Fast and aggressive all day, he and Munoz looked to have taken the race by the horns to set up a great shootout, but both had to pit for a splash of fuel in the closing laps. We'll have to wait for that shootout for another day, but it will happen.

Fourth place: Tony Kanaan. As always, TK gave it everything he had but luck didn't fall his way. Still he moved up quickly from his 18th place starting position and showed he was a true player when he went to the point for the first time on Lap 109. For as much as the Ganassi cars struggled during the month, they showed up on race day.

Fifth place: Charlie Kimball. Per his usual, Charlie was solid but not really spectacular. He was able to stay on the lead lap and take advantage of opportunities. Not much more to say about that.

Sixth place: JR Hildebrand. JR just continues to get it done at the Speedway. Sunday's result gives him four Top-10 finishes in six starts and he has completed all 200 laps five times. He even led four laps on the day, the first time he had led laps since 2011.

Seventh place: James Hinchcliffe. Like Newgarden, even though his P7 wasn't the best finish of his career at Indy, Sunday was his best drive. He and Ryan Hunter-Reay waged an awesome battle at the start of the race, swapping places several times, and his 19 laps led was a career high. Like Newgarden and Munoz, put Hinch on the list of guys whose day will come.

Eighth place: Scott Dixon. Dixie had a day a lot like Kimball's, he just kept plugging away and turning laps and at one point down the stretch found himself in the Top 5 late in the race. He didn't lead a lap for the first time since 2010, but finished on the lead lap for the 10th time in the last 11 years. Amazing.

Ninth place: Sebastien Bourdais. Another guy who just kept at it all day. Crazy as it sounds, SeaBass has never led a lap at Indy, but this was his second Top 10 in three years.

Tenth place: Will Power. Bad Will showed up Sunday, as a stupid mistake coming out of the pits on the first round of stops sent him to the back of the field, and he was never really a factor all day long. He looked like he might have figured stuff out after a very impressive runner-up finish to Juan Pablo Montoya last year, but having a clue isn't a permanent function of his.

11th place: Helio Castroneves. With 100 miles to go it appeared Helio might be in the mix to win his record tying 4th 500, but contact with Hildebrand bent up one of his rear tie guards and a 35 second stop for repairs ruined his day. I chalk the contact up to a racing incident, but Helio was just one of several drivers who were victims of bad luck.

The Bad Luck Club: This year, Hunter-Reay is the poster boy. RHR led a race-high 52 laps but a weird incident with Townsend Bell in the pits knocked him off the lead lap and he finished 24th...A lap 64 crash where the car just got away from him meant Montoya went from first in 2015 to last this year, becoming the first driver to achieve that since Johnny Rutherford in 1976-77...The race was coming to Marco Andretti when his crew put the wrong tires on his car, leaving it so loose he had to make an unscheduled stop for new kicks. He was able to stay on the lead lap and placed 12th...Conor Daly was running well but got caught up in Mikhail Aleshin's wreck and was done for the day at 115 laps.

Rookies: All in all, the first-timers did well. Beyond Rossi, they all drove smart races and finished, which is always a good goal for your first race. Max Chilton finished on the lead lap in 15th, Matt Brabbham was one lap down in 22nd place, Spencer Pigot kept his nose clean and would have had a better result if he hadn't run out of gas late in the race to fall five laps off the pace, and Stef Wilson was doing well until he had to retire from the race with electrical problems. Good job guys!

Sunday was my 19th Indy 500, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. The place was full, the racing was exciting and we had a finish for the ages. I know there are some that are worried whether or not the excitement of the 100th running will carry over into the coming years, but for me, I don't really care. I just feel really blessed to have been able to have been at the Speedway Sunday, and it was certainly a day I'll never forget.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Carb Night Burger Bash

Hey everyone, it's Indy 500 weekend!

Are you excited yet? I hope so, because I know I am. And even better, I'm already in town, which hasn't happened since, well, I actually lived here 20-plus years ago. Since Kevin had his last final exam today, we were unable to make it here for Carb Day, which I heard was pretty insane, but we got down here in time for the Carb Night Burger Bash.

Started by Indy Star racing writer Curt Cavin nine years ago, the Burger Bash has grown steadily over the years, and for the first time, moved downtown to the Pan Am Plaza. It's a great chance to see some drivers, and really get into the spirit of race weekend.

This was our first Burger Bash, but certainly not the last, as we had an great time. As you can see from the photo, we had a lot of company!

We got there a little early, so it was kind of slow for a bit, but Curt Cavin finally took to the stage and the rest of
the night was just a parade of drivers who made it up onto the stage, with part of the night serving as an episode of Curt and Kevin Lee's popular radio show "Trackside".

In all there were at least 15 drivers who will participate in Sunday's race at the Burger Bash, including Graham Rahal, whose main sponsor, Steak N' Shake, which had a huge presence at the event, serving shakes (the chocolate shake was outstanding), burgers and fries.

The greatest thing about the night? It raised a boatload of money for charity, and that might be the best aspect of the Burger Bash, is that it is a great thing for the fans but goes a long way towards helping people too.
Since it's after midnight and I am getting up early for Legends Day, I won't go into a ton of detail about the event, but to me the best part of the night was being able to interact with the drivers in a relaxed setting and get some photos and autographs.

As you can see from the photo of my program from last year, I had a good night! Of course, the one I was most excited about was polesitter James Hinchcliffe's.

I've met Hinch a couple of times before and even gotten some photos with him, but never really had the chance to talk to him, and to get his autograph.

While he was signing I said to him, "Hinch, I am beyond excited for you.", and he replied, "Thanks, I really appreciate that". One thing that makes Hinch so popular is that you can tell he is being totally sincere when he says stuff like that. I think this month has meant so much to him.

The great thing about getting here on Friday is that is reminds me of the days when I used to live here, when I was going to the track a lot and feeling the energy build as the month goes on. It's hard to explain this weekend to people who haven't been a part of it, but there is nowhere else in the world I'd rather be right now.

Here are a few more photos from tonight. Enjoy!