Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Post-Season Banquet

I'm going to be blunt...the last few weeks in the IndyCar world have sucked. We haven't had a race in 67 days (and won't have one for another 130-plus days), Tony George tried to buy the series (although in hindsight, well, I'll keep that to myself) and the popular CEO was unceremoniously axed amidst the usual secrecy, politics and backroom dealings we have grown accustomed to in open wheel racing.

Even worse, who is in charge? Jeff Belskus had the "interim" title removed and is now the official IndyCar CEO, but Mark Miles was named CEO of parent-company Hulman & Co. and said everyone in the organization reports to him. I don't mind if that's the case, because Miles has 15 years of experience running a pro sports organization (ATP tennis) and spearheaded Indy's Super Bowl week, but who makes the final decisions? Because if it's Belskus I don't have a lot of confidence in the future, because I see the new boss looking like the old one, and by that I mean the old guard of the Hulman family and the Board, who in 16 years have yet to show me they can run a racing series.

Anyway, as usual, the stuff off the track has overshadowed what happened on-track in 2012, but it's time to eat, drink and be merry as we celebrate the 15DIM 3rd Annual Awards Banquet. OK, so it's a sort of virtual thing, but you get the drift. As usual, I'm passing out awards, so if you win one contact me and I'll send out the trophy. If not, I will be more than happy to present one at one of my stops on the IndyCar circuit this year.

Yeah I know that won't happen, but wouldn't it be funny if someone wanted to play along?

Driver of the Year -- Ryan Hunter-Reay. It seemed like for the longest time RHR carried around that dreaded "potential" tag. People have felt he's always had the talent to do something big, but for various reasons it just hadn't worked out for him. But this year it all came together as he used a huge mid-summer surge to capture his first IndyCar title, and the first for an American driver in six years.

Winning three straight races (Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto) in June and early July, RHR was firmly in the title hunt but after finishing 24th at Mid-Ohio and 18th at Sonoma, stood 36 points behind Will Power with two races to go. He then put together two big time drives by winning Baltimore and finishing fourth at the season-ender in Fontana. He has a title, confidence and job security (for probably the first time in his career)...he might only get better.

Drive of the Year -- Dario Franchitti, Indy. After winning his third consecutive title in 2011, Franchitti got off to a slow start in 2012, finishing P13 at St. Pete, P10 at Barber and P15 at Long Beach. A fifth-place finish in Brazil sent him into May with a bit of momentum, but struggled finding the right combination between his Honda motor and DW12 chassis and qualified a poor 16th. Then on race day, he found himself in 29th place early after contact with EJ Viso in the pits after an early yellow.

Then, the stuff got real. Dario charged up through the field and eventually held off an amazing last-lap, balls-to-the-wall move by Takuma Sato in Turn 1 to win the most competitive 500 of this generation and put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy for the third time. What was even more impressive is that most of his run through the field was accomplished under green flag conditions. From lap 18 until he took the lead for the first time on lap 153, the race was green for 117 laps, meaning he passed a ton of cars on track, not in the pits. As a British fan behind me remarked "he knows how to win".

Race of the Year -- Indy. Yeah, like there was even any debate on this one. One one of the hottest days in race history, the drivers put on an incredible show that included 34 lead changes among 10 drivers, and 11 lead changes in the final 100 miles. In the end, Franchitti and Sato dove into Turn 1 together in one of those two-guys-go-in-and-one-leaves scenarios, and it was Franchitti who came out the other side in one piece. Just an amazing day.

Move of the Year -- Tony Kanaan. Indy. This is a new category this year, but I had to honor what I think could be the move of the millennium. As the field came back to the field to restart the 500 on lap 185, TK, bolted from sixth to first in typical fashion, and though he was passed by Franchitti by the time the field came back around, added another page to his book of amazing restarts.

Rookie of the Year -- Simon Pagenaud. Like fellow first-year driver Rubens Barrichello (who was ineligible for the "official" series ROY), Pagenaud was a "rookie" to IndyCar but entered the series with a wealth of racing experience throughout several series, and that showed as he adapted quickly to IndyCar. He finished with four podiums and adapted well to ovals, which he was driving for the first time. Pagenaud finished the season fifth in the standings, the only driver in the Top 10 who was part of a one-car team.

Comeback Driver of the Year -- Helio Castroneves. This spot last year was for the "Most Underrated Driver" but honestly I had a hard time choosing, so I made up another category. If you recall, I gave Helio the "Most Overrated Driver" award last year because of his 11th-place finish in points, which was probably a better finish that he deserved because he was plain awful.

There were questions entering the season about Helio's future, but he answered those questions when he won the season-opener at St. Pete. He late won at Edmonton and though he had just three overall podium finishes, was very consistent with nine Top 6 finishes.

Most Overrated Driver -- Marco Andretti. Marco didn't just take this award from Helio this year, he ripped it from his hands. On an Andretti Autosport team that saw one teammate win the title and another finish eighth in the standings (James Hinchcliffe), Marco dropped off the face of the earth, finishing 16th in the standings and cracking the Top 10 just three times. Marco had his share of bad luck, but so did lots of other drivers. He just seemed in a funk all year.

Lastly, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving. In this space last year I posted this: "I think 2012 promises to be a great season, and it can't get here soon enough!" I feel the same this year, looking forward to 2013!

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