Sunday, April 24, 2011

Row 5...By the Way, Only Five Weeks Until Race Day!

The weather is getting better and the days are flying by. The 15 Days in May are almost here!

Row 5 was a bit of a challenge, and at times it would have been a better idea to have listed drivers in no uncertain order! But, it's all for fun (and debate) and it's an opportunity to learn more about the 500 and its heroes.

Inside Row 5: Mauri Rose

Rose's career was a bit interesting because he is really the only driver to have success on both sides of WWII, and he is also a part of one of only two sets of co-winners.

He made the first of his 16 appearances in the 500 in 1933, when he started 42nd and finished 35th after completing just 48 laps. The next year, he paced the field for 68 laps before finishing second to Bill Cummings.

That was the first of eight races which he would lead, something he wouldn't do for another seven years. Rose won his first pole in 1941, but saw his day end -- at least in that car -- after 150 miles due to mechanical issues. But just 12 laps later, owner Lou Moore pulled Rose's teammate Floyd Davis out of his car (which was in 14th position) and turned it over to Rose, who took the car to the lead on lap 161 and went on to win. Both Rose and Davis are credited with that win, and their faces appear together on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

That wasn't the only interesting win of Rose's career. In 1947, he was running second to teammate Bill Holland late in the race, but with Holland slowing after getting the "EZ" sign from his pit, Rose kept driving hard and moved into the lead with eight laps to go. The two even waved to each other as Rose drove by, with Holland thinking he was just letting his teammate back on the lead lap.

Rose returned the next year and had a more conventional win, taking the lead on lap 143 and going on to capture his third 500. Rose retired from racing after crashing out of the 1951 race, but returned to Indy to drive the pace car in 1967.

In all he led a total of 256 laps in competition, finishing in the top-5 seven different times.

Middle Row 5: Ralph DePalma

I covered DePalma's career in an earlier post here. One of the greatest drivers of the Speedway's early history, he is still second in laps led (612), a number he amassed in just 10 starts! An incredible driver of that early era who won a lot but was also admired for his clean drivng and sportsmanship.

Outside Row 5: Parnelli Jones
Jones' career at Indy was short -- just seven races -- but it was outright dominant. The 1963 winner, he had become the first driver to top 150 mph in qualifying the year before, and in 1967 came just three laps from winning when a bearing broke in the revolutionary STP turbine car he was driving for Andy Granatelli and it coasted to the pits as A.J. Foyt roared by and scored his third win.

Jones was a front-runner, leading 167 laps the year of his win and 171 of the 196 laps he completed in 1967. Overall he led 492 of 1,130 in competition, an amazing 44 percent, while winning two poles and never starting worse than sixth.

After coming so close in 1967, Jones returned to practice in the turbine the next year, but stepped out of the car when he wasn't happy with its performance. He never raced at Indy again, but became a car owner and won with Al Unser in 1970-71.

The 1960s is arguably one of the most amazing decades in the Speedway's history, with its innovation, drastic increases in speed and some of the deeper and more elite fields ever assembled. The fact that he was one of the drivers to beat every time he got behind the wheel during that era is a testament to his ability.

Outside of Indy, he was a multiple national champion in several different disciplines, and is a member of more than 20 different motorsports Halls of Fame. His son P.J. competed in the 500 twice and drove for parts of four seasons (1996-99) in the Indy Racing League.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Long Beach -- Comeback Sunday!

Sunday's Grand Prix of Long Beach really surprised me in how much I enjoyed watching the race. What I've always liked about Long Beach is its history and community involvement, and how that's a pretty cool thing. But I will admit I've never been a fan of the racing. It's a tight course that in the past hasn't always led to good racing, but I watched both qualifying and the race itself and thought both were really exciting.

It took a while for the race to heat up, as the ugliest start in history (more on that later) led to the field being pretty stagnant until the first yellow. Then it got progressively better from there, and Mike Conway's win will go down as one of the true highlights of the season and probably one of the more popular victories all through the paddock.

There are a number of storylines that came from Sunday's race, so here are a few of my personal highlights.
Mike Conway finally caught a break! I asked that question in my notes from Barber last week, and he finally had a weekend that went his way. After a bad pit stop had dropped Conway back to 22nd place he patiently worked his way back up front, and when he got by Ryan Briscoe for the lead he just took off and closed that race out like a real champion. That was some great driving, and maybe showed a glimpse of what Andretti Autosport saw in him when they hired him over the winter, despite some more experienced drivers still looking for rides at the time. He is all the way back from his horrific wreck at Indy last year and that is a good thing.

Ryan Briscoe did the same. There is no doubt that Briscoe might be on the hot seat at Penske, which is a testament to their high standards as opposed to his performance over the last few years. His first two races were disappointing, though neither incident that took him out were his fault, either. Briscoe drove with a lot of confidence Sunday, led a bunch of laps and his runner-up finish vaulted him 17 spots in the standings to eighth.

On the flip side is Justin Wilson. He is just struggling right now, and again, much of it is not his own doing. As one of the better road racers in the series, he should have at least one podium finish to his credit so far, but right now he is just scuffling.

...and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Long Beach is his "home" course and he looked to be heading to winning there for the second year in a row until gearbox issues ended his day and opened the door for Conway. He needs to have a big weekend at Brazil.

Helio still looks lost. Helio Castroneves is one of my favorite drivers, but I can't defend the guy right now. Stupid decisions, stupid driving and taking out teammate Will Power when both of them had a chance for a win or a high finish was inexcusable. I give him credit for being a standup guy in his interviews, but public opinion has been turning on him since last summer and he really needs to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans, but most importantly his fellow drivers.

E.J. Viso...another weekend, another wrecked car. I know that he brings a lot of money, which like Milka Duno did for Dale Coyne Racing helps fund a lot of the team, but at what point does KV Racing decide it isn't worth it?

Danica is surprising me. I really thought this would be a "mail it in" year where she cared at places like Indy and Texas but spent the rest of the time thinking about her NASCAR career. Quite the contrary as I think she has driven pretty well, not spectacular, but very solid. Twisties and street circuits aren't her strong suit, and even if she stays in the series they never will be. But at 11th in points right now a decent showing in Brazil gives her a chance to make a run at Indy and the rest of the ovals and perhaps move up a few spots.

Double-file...keep trying! Really, I think the enforcement of the double-file went out the window Sunday, which given the tight dive into the first turn was understandable. That and I think many of the drivers had talked amongst themselves and had some "agreements" in place. Given how terrible the start of the race and subsequent restarts went down, it would have been better to have shelved double-file restarts altogether for the weekend from the beginning. Keeping them, and then Brian Barnhart and company saying the rules were going to be enforced, only to then let the drivers do what they want, gives the series' powers that be a real credibility problem. As if they didn't have that already anyway. Still, I think if the drivers stop whining and drive like the professionals they claim to be, it can be done.

Points race. It's nice to see that the top six in points all come from different teams. If I had to pick a champion right now, it would be points-leader Dario Franchitti. He is getting better as he gets older and is probably the best all-around driver in the series. While the top two (Franchitti, Will Power) are the same-old, same-old, the next four places (Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Conway and Alex Tagliani) are a refreshing change for the better. And who said this was going to be a lame-duck season?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Random Stream of Consciousness About Barber

I've been up to my neck in learning about VOIP phone systems (and yes I'm still confused!) so everything else has taken a bit of a back seat lately. But through some miracle I was able to watch Sunday's race and have a few thoughts, in no particular order:

Will Power is just better than everyone else right now. Yes he has the best of everything behind him, but you don't do what he does on road courses without having an immense amount of talent backing it up. Once he figures out how to compete on ovals he can be considered at the top of his game.

* Outside of the Evil Empire, the series is hella competitive. Yeah Penske and Ganassi have the field covered, and that isn't fun. But watching the racing back in the field shows that a lot of the other teams are very, very equal, which make for some intense competition. I think Randy Bernard and Co. need to insist to all of their television partners that they show a lot of that racing because it is some good stuff. Eight teams are represented in the Top 10 in points, and while it's only been two races, that says something.

* Double-file restarts need to stay. They are exciting and I think in time will prove to be a good thing. Drivers need to stop whining and just drive...they are professionals and should be able to figure it out. I understand the importance of each position and how hard it is to pass (although Tony Kanaan doesn't seem to have a problem) but the issue isn't the restarts, it's the knuckleheaded moves that people make when the green flag flies. Cooler heads need to start prevailing, because it's getting pretty expensive for everyone.

And with that thought comes this one...

* Why does Takuma Sato like hitting everyone and everything? I just don't get it. Guy drives like it's a video game and he can hit the reset button at any time. I'm surprised Jimmy Vasser hasn't channeled his inner Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder and told him to hit the pace car because he has hit everything else and wants him to be perfect.
* On the other hand...Simona De Silvestro just drives hard. Every. Single. Lap. She's a racer, pure and simple. I'm not going to get ahead of myself and say she wins a race soon, but multiple podium finishes are a possibility. What really impresses me is that she doesn't give up and drives all the way to the checkered flag. She still has a lot to figure out but will get there faster than people think.

* Oriol Servia=underrated. He's run seven races since the start of the 2009 season, has finished in the Top 5 twice and the Top 10 five times. With the exception of the 2009 Indy 500, he has finished on the lead lap in each of those races and improved from his starting position in every one. He didn't have a consistent ride until now why?

* Surprises: 1) Kanaan is third in points despite only having a ride for about three weeks. I think they guy is driving with a chip on his shoulder and feels like he has a lot to prove to Andretti Autosport.; 2) As mentioned before, eight teams are in the Top 10!; 3) Helio Castroneves just looks absolutely clueless (and frustrated), although Indy will cure what ails him as always; 4) Several drivers have had some bad luck and are off to terrible starts, most notably Justin Wilson (15th in points), Ryan Hunter-Reay (17th), Graham Rahal (20th) and Ryan Briscoe (25th); 5) Mike Conway STILL hasn't caught a break.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Frenetic Friday -- Buddy Lazier's Place In History

I've seen some discussion recently about where 1996 winner Buddy Lazier fits among the roster of great drivers in 500 history.

I think everyone can agree that Lazier wouldn't make it on anyone's Top 33 list. But I do take exception to people who say he is either not worthy of consideration because of the era in which he had his succcess or he is overrated because of the circumstances that were going on around him at the peak of his career.

When I was looking over the original list of 100 drivers that will ultimately make up the Speedway's Greatest 33 list, I was surprised to see there were several race winners left off. I thought perhaps all of them would be included given the reverence the Speedway and fans pay to every driver who has rolled into Victory Lane.

Still, I was glad that some weren't on there because they truly were "one-hit" wonders. Some guys won the race and the rest of their career was a disappointment, so they didn't belong. There are some drivers who never won the race but I think had better careers than guys who won once and did nothing else, and many made the cut in their place, which was the right thing to do.

Who knows how the voting will end up, but Lazier deserves to be in at least the top 50. Besides his victory he had four other top-5 finishes, including two runner-up efforts. In fact, from 1996-2000 he had an amazing run of five years where he finished first, fourth, second, seventh and second. He also placed fifth in 2005.

His runner-up finish to Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 was a very impressive drive to many who were there that day (including me). Montoya was the best driver and had the best car, there is no doubt about that. But it wasn't a walk in the park the entire race, as there were points in the race where Lazier drove really hard and made Montoya work.

Unfortunately, Lazier's best years at Indy coincided with the dark age where CART drivers didn't participate in the 500, and when they did, they dominated, as Montoya's ice-breaking win was followed by three straight wins by Team Penske. His success came when the "stars and cars" (remember that phrase?) were racing someplace else.

When he was among the best drivers in the IRL, in all fairness he didn't go head-to-head with the best drivers in the sport at the time. That can be nitpicked to death, but sooner or later the "yeah, but..." statements have to end. Because if you are going to do that with Lazier, you have to do it with a lot of other guys. Arie Luyendyk had a win and a couple of poles in that span too, do we take his career down a notch or two because of that?

Arie is flat-out one of the greats, one of the Greatest 33 in fact. Lazier probably isn't, but the point is that while Arie had success prior to the split, he blostered his resume greatly in the same span as Lazier.

I don't have a problem with either one, because they beat who showed up. They had no control over the political storm that was raging around them. Showing up and racing was all they could do, and we can't go with revisionist history to say those things wouldn't have happened if the other drivers were there. Maybe it would have changed, but so would the course of A.J. Foyt's legend had Eddie Sachs and Parnelli Jones not experienced issues with the checkered flag in sight to allow Foyt the chance to win.

Last I checked, none of A.J.'s wins had asterisks. No one's should.

Racing doesn't have sabermetrics like baseball (thank goodness), a series of concocted formulas that try and compare racers between eras. You build a body of work, and it stands. You accumulate a career over time and stack it up to others.

Lazier's career line at Indy reads: 16 races, one win, five top 5s, six top 10s and 70 laps led.

In the end, it was a great career, no matter how you try and stack it. Lazier's body of work proves he is better than a lot of people give him credit for.