Saturday, June 30, 2012

Weekend Five

I'm feeling a bit empty inside knowing that there won't be a race this weekend. It doesn't take long to make something into a habit, and I had quickly gotten into one which entailed starting to get amped up somewhere around noon on Friday for a little racing.

So with no racing this weekend, I figured I'd share a few things that were on my mind this week, in no certain order.

*Push to pass is back! The announcement came down that push to pass will be in play for the road/street portion of the remainder of the season, which is five of the final six races. I don't get this, I really don't. First, most of the fanbase hates it and second, given the racing we have seen so far this year, it's not even necessary. Are they not sure of the quality of the racing at the rest of the venues? If someone can make sense of this please let me know.

*No 16th race. I know, I covered this a couple of days ago, but this time I want to talk about the total lack of communication that existed between IndyCar and the tracks. When the series announced Monday they wouldn't be filling China's spot, a couple of venues came back to say that they had been in talks with IndyCar all the way up to that point and the decision to scrap a 16th race is news to them.

Why does this keep happening? The series continues to create bad blood and makes itself look bad by failing to disclose its plans to everyone involved. I mean, how hard would it have been to get everyone on a conference call and say "look, we think it's in everyone's best interests to not put together a rushed event, but we'd love to start talking about 2013".

Given the interest of several tracks, people are seeing the show that IndyCar is putting on and they want in on it. And that's great! But for now the series is begging for attention, and it's best to keep friends and not piss anyone off.

*Marco Andretti. I've been thinking about the subject of Marco all week long. It's obvious that he is not keeping up with his teammates this year, and the saying "if you aren't part of the solution you are part of the problem" is creeping into my mind. In short, it's time to start growing up. I don't know if he is bending under the pressure of driving for his dad or is upset that two teammates are in the top 5 in points and he has one top-10 finish on the season, but he is 109 races into his IndyCar career and things aren't getting better.

I thought Ryan Hunter-Reay was gracious in deflecting credit to Marco's setup helping him the race, which is what true pros do. I firmly believe RHR and James Hinchcliffe buy into the "if one shines we all shine" philosophy, but Marco, I'm not so sure. He hollers on the radio if his car isn't perfect, he hollers when his teammates race him hard, and he just has a major issue with his attitude.

No doubt he is disappointed with how the season is going, but his performance has been less than stellar since winning Iowa a year ago. At some point he has to do some soul searching because family is family, and business is business. As Hinchcliffe has proven, there are a lot of capable drivers just itching for a good seat, people who could take that equipment and put it in the top 10 most every weekend.

His worst attribute on the track is his complete lack of patience. When things don't go his way, he goes off the deep end. Some drivers can make the most out of bad situations, he cannot. You can blame a lot of it on bad luck, and he has had his moments, but lots of other guys have too. At some point you have to produce, and he isn't doing it. And yes, a lot of it is his own fault.

*Dario Franchitti is up for an ESPY Award in the Best Driver category, joining fellow nominees Tony Stewart, Sebastan Vettel and drag racer Del Worsham. Look for Stewart to win the popularity contest (ahem, sorry, award) as a Cup driver has taken home the hardware every year since 2006. Jimmy Vasser was the last IndyCar driver to win the award in 1997.

Based on his 2011 championship (his third in a row, by the way) and 2012 Indy 500 win, Franchitti is a good choice. However, if you had to pick the best driver in the series, RIGHT NOW, who would it be?

In my mind, it's Scott Dixon.

I posted that same question on Twitter during the Texas race (prior to his crash...ouch) and the the few responses I did receive pretty much agreed with that sentiment. I know I am more and more on his bandwagon, but I feel like it is deserved.

Put it this way: how many drivers walk into the paddock each weekend as a threat to win? Sure, there are lots of guys that COULD win if all went right, but how many run at or near the front week in and week out?

Will Power? He just finished proving that ovals are his kryptonite.

Dario Franchitti? If this list had been put together four months ago, he'd be on it.

James Hinchcliffe? He runs up front but he's never won, so...

Helio Castroneves? He's been the most consistent, but in some races he hasn't been a factor.

Ryan Hunter-Reay? As hot as RHR has been, I could maybe write this post about him in another month if he keeps it up.

Truth is, right here, right now, Dixon is the lone driver I could put on a "he's got a chance to win" list every single weekend. Again, that's a fluid list and it might change between now and the end of the year, but a win, a pole, four podiums, five top five finishes and 405 laps led is about the only argument that needs to be made. Right?

*Six races to go, and the points are tight. Power sits in the lead with 286 points, but the top 5 is separated by just 30. Meaning, one race can shake the standings up immensely. All of the drivers have had at least one "mulligan" of one bad race so from here on out there will be little room for error.

Power made it through the oval portion of the schedule and was able to hold serve, so of course he is the favorite to win his first championship. But it wouldn't surprise me to see four or five drivers still in it when we get to Fontana in September.

What might make things interesting is that there will be a few wildcards in play over the next few races that weren't there the first time around the twisties. Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and Sebastien Bourdais are three guys who were saddled with the Lotus the first time around, and in the quick break in the oval schedule for Belle Isle, both Servia and Tags were outstanding. Servia placed fifth while Tags qualified third and even after suffering a mechanical issue when the race started moved up to 10th by the end of the shortened event.

It's safe to say that while the fact there are only six races left in the season is a total bummer, it should be a pretty good show from here on out.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Good News, Bad News

Want the bad news first? OK, the IndyCar series decided today that they are not going to replace China with another race as they were unable to secure a deal with a track to stage a race on such short notice.

Honestly, the part I'm bummed about is that there will only be 15 races on the schedule, meaning we have just six more events left before the season ends in Fontana on Sept. 15. I wish a 16th race could have been found -- well, it could have, but it would have come with a big price tag. As in, anyplace the series would race they would have probably taken a financial bath.

Coupled with the financial hit they are going to take by losing the China sanctioning fee, believed to be $8 million, it would have more than likely been a red season for the series at a time where they could least afford it. It still might be, so a bad deal just to have a race would have made it worse.

So while I'm a little upset that we were strung along with the belief a 16th race was going to happen, it's better going without because a half-assed effort put together at the last minute that flopped would be really, really bad PR. Hopefully the interest several tracks showed in perhaps jumping in and staging a race carries on to next year and an expanded schedule. Road America, believed to be one of the front-runners for the fill-in race and a favorite among the drivers, will be in the picture if the numbers work right and there isn't a negative effect on Milwaukee. There are a lot of reasons that IndyFest should be a priority.

There is a concern that a race one short of the contractual obligation to series sponsor Izod would become an issue. But you know what I say about that? Screw Izod. They have got to be the shittiest corporate partner in professional sports. Little sponsor activation at the races, small amounts of commercial time and no love for the drivers.

Case in point: Izod ran several commercials during the Iowa Corn 250 featuring pro golfer Kevin Na and another that showed Zoolander-type male models frolicking in the water. Yet not one spot featured an IndyCar driver, not even one with Ryan Briscoe, who carries the Izod livery on his car. So if they are just going through the motions, then if I am the powers that be in IndyCar I don't go out of my way to get that 16th race.

Rant over. But one thing that got me stoked was the announcement that the season-ending race at Auto Club Speedway will be stretched to 500 miles (250 laps), 100 miles more than the original scheduled distance. For old schoolers like me, that's great news.

I can't help it, I love 500-milers! I wish we had more on the schedule but given the short attention span of our society (me included), the value of television time and the declining interest in 500 mile races, even in NASCAR, we probably won't get many more than two a season.

Still, like many, I would love to see a 500 mile race at Pocono or Michigan added to the schedule to give us a true "Triple Crown" of races, like existed back in the day when the old Ontario Speedway was part of the circuit in the 1970s. That would be way cool.

I posted on Twitter today that the only thing that concerned me was the possibility of lots of attrition. Maybe I am harkening back to the wind it up til it sounds like a fighter jet days of CART but it seemed like Fontana has always been hard on engines. With the two long straights it will be interesting to see what speeds will look like and how the engines will be taxed. Gearing will be huge.

Speaking of, check out the video I've posted below. Holy cow, if that isn't a race car completely on the edge I don't know what is! Gil de Ferran could seriously pedal a car. If you want to know what 241.428 miles an hour looks like...just watch! Make sure you check out the entire clip so you can see the grid at the end -- you'll see a few familiar names.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Yeah, I'm copying the same headline I used last year, but it certainly does it justice, doesn't it? As always, the bizarre followed IndyCar to Iowa this weekend, but this time it was certainly a good thing.

Like last week, we had it all, didn't we? A weather delay, outstanding racing and some shuffling at the top of the points standings. As is a 15DIM tradition, lets run through the top 5 and some other newsy things on the day.

*Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. RHR has been the short track master this year, following up his win in Milwaukee with another great performance Saturday. Not only that, he is now second in the championship standings, just three points behind Will Power, who had another tough night. Overall he led just 15 laps, but was fast when he needed to be, pulling away from the field when he passed Scott Dixon with 13 laps to go. He now has five podiums on the season and has jumped five spots and gained 72 points on Power over the last two weeks.

*Runner-up: Marco Andretti. Marco sure seemed pretty pissed after the race. For all of the hollering he did on the radio and all of the adversity he had during the course of the night, a second is a pretty good result. Plus, he needed this one, because believe it or not this was his FIRST top 10 of the season.

*Tony Kanaan. He seems to be getting closer to breaking into the win column every week. A poor practice effort (although he did win a heat race) and a 10-spot grid penalty for an engine change pushed TK back to the 19th starting position and it was just a little too much to overcome. Still, he recorded thirds at Indy and Iowa to go along with a runner-up finish at Milwaukee and seems to be getting more consistent finishes. It's too bad that the oval portion of the schedule is over until September, because he has looked great on them.

*Scott Dixon. Dixie seemed to have the race in hand with about 15 laps to go and just started falling backwards. Still, he led 76 laps and after his sub-par performances the last two weeks at Texas and Milwaukee he's feeling pretty good about getting some good points and moving on to Toronto. If he falls short of a championship, the bad luck he encountered the last two weeks will haunt him, because he has been darn good the rest of the year.

*Simon Pagenaud. No one, and I mean NO ONE, told me Pagenaud was this good. I think given his experience with ovals he had a good showing on all of them and got progressively better each time out. Simon was super aggressive Saturday -- in a good way -- and looked very, very comfortable. A couple of things will have to go his way for it to happen, but he has an outstanding chance to win this year.

*Championship contenders kept falling by the wayside, starting before the green flag even fell when polesitter Dario Franchitti's motor blew up in fine fashion. For once he seemed pretty philosophical about it given it was the race motor they had used to win Indy. One good thing about his bad luck is it gave him time for a little side work, which I'll talk about later.

Then we had points leader Will Power involved in an accident with EJ Viso on lap 68, prompting a sequence in which Viso pointed to his head while grabbing his crotch, Will flashing the double birds (again) before finally seeing the replay and taking full responsibility for the crash, which was his fault. Oh yeah, he also dropped a "shit" in said interview, much to the delight of Twitter. Will is intense, but his interviews can be pretty entertaining. And if you watched the awesome IndyCar 36 that featured Helio Castroneves, his cranking up the radio to the song "California Love" is kind of hilarious.

If Will would come out of hiding on race weekends and hang with the fans a little more so they can see who he is, he could become a pretty popular guy.

Then on lap 197, James Hinchcliffe spun on his own and crashed into the turn 4 wall. Costly, because on a night were he could have made a big dent into Power's lead, he instead finishes 17th and drops to fifth in the standings.

*Heat races. Overall I thought they were well-received by the drivers and fans, but if they continue doing this at Iowa, I think there should be some tweaking. As some have mentioned, perhaps the heat winners (or even the top two) should move on to the final heat race which involved the top eight cars. Or put some money or a couple of points on the line so they have a little more incentive to race. Especially in the final heat, it didn't seem like some of the drivers were interested in pressing the issue at all, so maybe with a little more on the line they might try harder.

*Broadcast. I don't usually comment on the broadcast because when NBC Sports Network is involved we get a great show. But I thought Saturday they scored a major coup when they got Franchitti up to the both for a while. Like Dan Wheldon last year, Dario had some great info because he is an active driver, and I thought he was informative, funny, and worked with the crew well.

As I mentioned last week, it's obvious Dario has a good personality and when he lets his guard down he is very engaging and outgoing. I think that when his driving days are over (which will be in the next year or two) that a stint in the booth might be a great thing for him.

By the way, I had never heard Tommy Kendall before and I thought he did an excellent job and should be somehow kept on the broadcasts in some capacity. Between Jon Beekhuis' technical knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport, Townsend Bell's reporting in the pits and Kevin Lee's versatility, the NBCSN team is excellent. Kendall would fit right in.

*Yellow, yellow! It was a bit disappointing to see the race end under caution after Katherine Legge's spin with three laps left, but thankfully there have been few (if any) calls for a green/white/checker finish. As always it makes its way into the discussion when a race ends under yellow, but my plea to Beaux Barfield and Co. is this: don't even think about it!

A couple other things to note: Castroneves led the most laps (133) but fell back at the end and finished sixth...Simona de Silvestro scored a moral victory when she finished 14th, just six laps down. Lotus is going to put in to make some engine changes that hopefully will improve the engine's performance, and let's hope that means Simona's patience will be worth it...Ed Carpenter finished eighth but had the fastest lap of the race at 181.479 mph.

Crazy that the season has 1) passed the halfway point and 2) the run of racing five straight weeks is over. Everyone gets a much-needed rest before heading to Toronto in two weeks.

Update! According to this piece in Lotus has been given permission to make "performance-based upgrades". Good news for Simona!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Milwaukee Post-Game

First of all, Happy Belated Father's Day. Being a dad is one of the toughest challenges of my life, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, and a lot of fun. Hope everyone had a good one. I miss my dad a lot, but am thankful for the things he taught me and the time he spent with me. I hope I can live up to him someday and have the impact on my two sons' lives as he did on mine.

It's hard to put my impressions of the Milwaukee IndyFest into one post, so I will probably stretch this out into the week a little bit. This one will focus on the events in and around the race itself, and I will discuss the incredible job Michael Andretti and his staff did to pull this off in the next day or two.

For now, all I'm going to say is that while Michael didn't win Celebrity Apprentice, he brought a race back from the dead, which I think is slightly more impressive. More on that later.

As far as the race goes, it was solid but not always spectacular. That or maybe we were a little spoiled with the first two ovals of the year. Still, while there weren't many lead changes up front, there were some good battles always going on within the rest of the field. Milwaukee ended up being a real thinking man's race, the drivers really had to work and plot all of their moves and passes, which on a mile oval means it sometimes took several laps to set up another car and pass it.

Plus, Milwaukee is a track where tire wear is important, so you don't want to eat your tires up constantly working traffic and moving around. I recall one sequence were Alex Tagliani had a faster car than Helio Castroneves, but he seemed content to ride behind Helio because he knew that Helio was going to be pitting soon and he was going to get the spot anyway. With no challenge from behind it was better to save the tires and pick up the position the easy way.

It doesn't make for a lot of "excitement" unless you like the strategy aspect of racing, but I liked it.

So let's run through the top 5 and a few other notes from the day. Yes, I will discuss Scott Dixon's royal screwing (err, penalty) later.

Overall Winner: Race fans! In the end, it was the fans that came out on top this weekend. Andretti and his group put together a great event in a short period of time, and one of the biggest cheers of the day came when it was announced the race is coming back in 2013. The Mile is part of the history of racing, just like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Milwaukee has always been a supporter of open wheel racing when it is given a reason to get behind the event. With a whole year to plan the race, it will be interesting to see what they do to try and improve on the product.

Race winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. RHR was good all weekend, and sat in either first or second place for well over half of the race. His win is the second straight by a non-Penske or Ganassi car, is the first for an American driver this year and is his second at the Mile to back up his Champ Car victory in 2004. Hunter-Reay has won a race in three straight seasons and has also moved up to fourth in points. Once he got the lead Saturday he was just hooked up, and easily drove away from a challenge from Tony Kanaan with  25 laps to go. His efforts at Indy and Texas were absolute debacles (neither his fault) and he would be challenging Will Power at the top of the standings if he'd had better results there. This was also the 40th win for Andretti Autosport, meaning Michael Andretti has nearly as many wins as an owner as he amassed as a driver (42). Pretty amazing.

Runner-up: Tony Kanaan. Midway through, I was beginning to once again question my race winning prediction as TK muddled somewhere between 8th and 11th place. But then the Brazilian got a fast pit stop and came to life. He had a nice battle with Oriol Servia for a while then worked his way into second place in time for the final restart. He didn't have enough for RHR but has to be encouraged with his performance on ovals so far. Third at Indy, second here and he was looking hella fast at Texas before Power's block party. His last win came at Iowa two years ago, is he primed for another?

James Hinchcliffe. Hinch had a day similar to Kanaan's in that a late-race surge got him onto the podium. He's just so consistent, having now finished in the top five four times and in the top 10 seven times in eight events. Like TK, he also battled with Servia and climbed onto the podium with a late-race pass. Raise your hand if you thought Hinch would be second in points midway through the season.

Oriol Servia. Ho hum, another race week, another bad qualifying effort, another race through the field to a good finish. It's just how Servia rolls. The Spaniard was running 154 mph laps in practice on Friday and qualified 22nd before starting 20th after the 10-grid penalties were sorted out. Saturday it came together, as always, and he improved 16 spots to his fourth finishing position. Since moving to the Chevy engine prior to Indy, Servia has gone P4 at Indy, P5 at Belle Isle and P4 here. He's now 10th in points as well, having accumulated 64 points in four races with the Lotus engine and 109 in four events with Chevy.

I ended up listening to Servia's channel on the scanner over the race's second half, and it was pretty interesting. Oriol didn't say much, but his spotter was constantly feeding him information about where he was in relation to the cars in front and behind him. I'm guessing because of his engineering background Servia likes having as much data fed to him as possible. His spotter also was giving him words of encouragement and feeding him positive thoughts. Good stuff.

EJ Viso. I have to admit I haven't been a fan of Viso's but there are times this year (Belle Isle excluded) where it appears he might be sorting a few things out. He led 27 laps on the day, more than as many as he had led in his 74 previous starts combined, and was in the fight the entire time. He isn't setting the world on fire, but he quietly has finished seven of the eight races this year (Texas was a mechanical DNF).

Certainly Andretti Autosport and KV Racing Technology had things figured out, each putting two cars in the top five, and it is worth mentioning that the third KV entry, Rubens Barrichello, ran in the top 5 all day before being shuffled back late and finishing 10th. On the other side of the spectrum, other than Castroneves' sixth-place effort (he also led 50 laps), Penske and Ganassi both had issues.

Points leader Power finished 12th for Penske, while teammate Ryan Briscoe suffered through all sorts of handling problems -- even replacing the entire rear wing assembly -- and wound up 14th..

Meanwhile, Franchitti, who won the pole and led 63 laps, couldn't capture the magic after his first stop, fell back into the field and finally saw his day end when he crashed in turn three on Lap 193. He finished 19th.

And then there was Dixon. After a tough day in practice and qualifying Friday, his 11th-best time and 10-grid penalty put him in the 21st starting position, Dixon had worked his way up to third when he was hit with a drive-through penalty for jumping the restart on Lap 103 and dropped back to 17th. At the time, he looked like he was the fastest car on the track and was just killing people in turns 3 and 4.

There is no doubt Dixon jumped the first restart, but that one was waved off and they tried again one lap later. The next restart he held his position and the race went on. Still, race control and Beaux Barfield felt they saw enough to penalize him, which he served about 20 laps later.

Here is where it gets dicey. Barfield said a glitch in the timing/scoring/video feeds meant they looked at video of the first restart but thought it was the second because the systems weren't synched. Barfield later admitted his mistake, which I do give him props for, but the damage was done and Dixon on could move up to 11th by the finish, which he also attributed to a mechanical issue.

It's unfortunate. I'm not going to harp on what Barfield did because he has been solid all year and made a mistake that sadly cannot be fixed. Officials miss calls in every sport, it's part of human beings doing a job, and all you can say is he flat-out screwed up. To his credit Dixon accepted his explanation and they are moving on to next week. I think Dixon knowing his issue with his throttle probably would have kept him from moving up much more probably softens the blow a little bit.

It was a tough weekend for the top two in points. Power still holds onto his lead but Hinchcliffe has moved to within 31 points (274-243) , while Dixon fell to third, just four points behind Hinch. Overall, the top five drivers in the standings are separated by just 43 total points.

Power has one more oval to get through before more than likely rediscovering his mojo, but don't forget he crashed at Iowa a year ago and finished 21st. He comes into this week not happy about the heat qualifying format, so he is going to need to get into a better frame of mind to do well.

Hard to believe the season has hit its halfway point. It's been a great season so far, hopefully the second half will be even better.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Friday At Milwaukee Wrap-Up

I've officially taken off my media credential (it hangs on my rear-view mirror for tomorrow) and wanted to throw down a few thoughts from my fan perspective. I'll also throw in a couple of predictions at the bottom -- wait, should I mention this now and have you just skip my ramblings and get to the good stuff? Yeah, I'll take my chances.

*Believe it or not...Friday was my first trip to the Mile, and my first time in Milwaukee in 22 years. Actually, it's the first oval other than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I've seen IndyCar racing. I've been to Chicagoland of course but those were for NASCAR Nationwide events.

One thing I noticed is it looked a lot different than on TV. The track itself is smaller but the grandstands are a lot bigger than I imagined them to be. It's a very nice facility for sure. The coolest part is that you only have to walk 250-300 yards across the infield to go from the front to the back straight. I ended up following the fenceline all the way around the track to get as many different vantage points as I could. One great place to watch is the entry to turn 1. The cars are diving into that corner at about 175 mph but it looks a hell of a lot faster close up. Not Indy fast, but quick.

Across the way in the grandstands, you don't have to get too far up to be able to see all the way around. I hoofed it all the way up to the top of the 400 level during the Indy Lights race and that is a fantastic view. My seats for the race are in turn 1 and there should be plenty of action there.

The line the drivers are taking through the turns is interesting. I spoke with Pippa Mann (more on that later) and she described it as a more road course-type line. Dario Franchitti mentioned that many drivers are going up a little higher because the darker asphalt on the lower line had lost grip and it was more necessary to take a different line.

*In terms of the race, it will be all about getting the mechanical settings right (gears, springs, etc) and saving the tires. The cars are maxed-out downforce-wise and all of that is necessary. In fact, Franchitti mentioned that he didn't believe anyone would try to trim their cars to find more speed, especially given they are flat-out all the way around as it is.

What is amazing is how the Mile is close to being as sensitive as IMS when it comes to a car's setup. As is typical, a bit of cloud cover helped the drivers find more speed, but at the same time a couple of times the wind came up and seemed to create a festival of rev limiters for a couple of drivers.

I watched qualifying from the grandstand with Zachary Houghton of IndyCar Advocate (and his wife Theresa) and a bit of a breeze came up during Helio Castroneves' run. I counted at least three times his car hit the rev limiter, including once when he just passed the start/finish line. That one caused Zach and I to look at each other as if to say "did we really hear that?".

Expect a little nose-to-tail action at the start of stints but the longer they go on and the more the tires fall off it should create some passing opportunities. From what I saw in practice the DW12 is as racy as always and a car that is hooked up will move through traffic well.

*One thing I that a "typical" IndyCar stop seems a little more laid back than at Indianapolis. Maybe it is the smaller crowds or the fact not everyone is wound so tight because, as we all know, Indy is in a different universe when it comes to pressure. But it seemed like the drivers moved around a little more freely in the pits, and especially back in the paddock area. Everything, from practice to qualifying to the race, sits in such a small window that you just take a shot at each segment and let the chips fall where they may.

*As we all know, this is a big weekend for IndyCar in Milwaukee. Today's crowd seemed pretty decent for a Friday afternoon. Looking across from the pits into the grandstands there seemed to be a few thousand people, and not many had left even as the Lights race went off at about 5:45 local time. Hopefully that is a precursor for tomorrow.

Two things Michael Andretti and his promotions group has done in organizing this that caught my eye came in layout and sponsor activation. There are plenty of things to do in the infield, and the appeal is there for all types of fans. There wasn't a huge crowd in the infield today, but I did see people streaming in for the live music as I was leaving at 8 p.m. Maybe how he is doing this -- putting on a show that "HEY!" has a race going on too -- isn't necessarily old school, if it goes well it might set a new standard for how these things can be done.

In terms of sponsors, the main sponsors for Andretti Autosport are displayed prominently throughout the venue. Heck, even the cooler in the media center was stocked with RC Cola, Sun Drop and Venom energy drinks! His sponsors are getting a ton of bang for their buck this weekend, and other sponsors should take notice.

*Speaking of the media center. Really, it is a very interesting place, and not at all what you might think. Yeah there is some laughing and joking going on, but the people there are very serious and very passionate about their jobs, and though the media gets a bad rap sometimes most of them care deeply about doing a good job. What I love the most -- well, besides the free food -- is the sheer amount of information you can get while in there.

They have media guides, press releases, stats, facts and figures. The media guide just for this weekend is well over 100 pages and gives you the goods on every driver who took to the track. Excellent stuff. Not to mention things like sheets of quotes from the drivers and other things that don't always make it into stuff that you read.

*I had a long conversation with driver Pippa Mann, and while she is one of the nicest people you could ever meet, she is also incredibly smart and very good at explaining technical terms. I went to school for close to 45 minutes as she talked at length about how to get around the Mile and what drivers do to make it go faster. Listen, all of us think we have some sort of knowledge about racing, but it turns out we don't know a thing!

We eventually got around to talking about a replacement for the cancelled China race (like many she favors Road America) and somehow that got us talking about Las Vegas.

I won't get into details of our conversation, but I will say this: when you hear a driver explain their concerns about pack racing from a completely technical and strategic standpoint, you understand where they are coming from. Maybe in the end you still might not agree with them, but you would at least be able to acknowledge their point of view. It just isn't as cut and dried as we think.

*Predictions! If you skipped to here, shame on you! Anyway, since qualifying is over I will not have a pick for the pole, and if I'd had I would have been way off as I was going to go with Alex Tagliani or Tony Kanaan.

But I am sticking with Kanaan to win the race. He said in his PR press release (which for the most part won't see the light of day) that he worked on qualifying setups but then moved to race setups in the afternoon. With that configuration he moved well in traffic, and because of four drivers who qualified ahead of him taking 10-grid penalties, he goes off sixth, so he is in a great position.

KV Racing was onto something as Rubens Barrichello will start third and EJ Viso fifth.

Also keep an eye on some of the 10-grid guys, most notably Justin Wilson, Will Power and Josef Newgarden who all qualified in the top seven Friday. Newgarden was fast all day in all setups, is this his weekend to take a big step forward?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Franchitti Finds Speed, Milwaukee Mile Pole

Dario Franchitti has made a career out of going fast when it counts. But even he was surprised by his performance Friday during Milwaukee IndyFest qualifying at the Milwaukee Mile.

After slogging his way through two practice sessions that saw him in the middle of the field, the defending pole and race winner here from a year ago popped two laps at an average speed of 168.737 mph and will lead the field to the green flag for the 27th time in his career, which ties Al Unser Sr. for eighth-best in IndyCar history.

Going off 22nd in the 25-car field, Franchitti's run knocked Justin Wilson, last week's winner at Texas, off the provisional pole. Wilson had qualified at 168.237. Ryan Hunter-Reay (167.911) took the third spot, while Will Power (167.361) was fourth and Rubens Barrichello (166.899) qualified a surprising fifth, bettering his 10th-place start at Indianapolis as the best of his IndyCar career.

This is officially his first pole of the season, though he started P1 at Long Beach after Ryan Briscoe was hit with a 10-grid penalty for an unapproved engine change.

"I bet you guys are surprised to see me," Franchitti said in the media center afterwards. "We struggled in practice, it wasn't balanced, it wasn't quick, any of those things. We put our heads together and it worked for qualifying. I'm very much pleased as I am surprised."

Franchitti could only manage a speed of 161.461 mph in practice, good for 15th on the pylon, but he wasn't the only one from Target Chip Ganassi Racing to have trouble as teammate Scott Dixon was only 10th-best at 162.558. When it came to making adjustments, Franchitti said the two of them went "different directions" but it was his that took, as Dixon was only 11th-best at 165.726.

"I didn't expect anything like that, and I really want to credit the team," Franchitti said. "This is really special for me, to get this pole."

Now the real work begins. For as bad as he was in practice, and as good as he was in qualifying, Franchitti and his team now have the challenge of finding the medium that will work in the race. He admits that his team will be putting in a long night trying to find exactly where that sweet spot exists.

Wilson, meanwhile, will have a challenge of his own. Fastest in the second practice session and third overall for the day, he gives up his front row starting spot as one of seven drivers who will receive 10-grid penalties for swapping out his Honda powerplant. He will now start the day on the outside of row six next to Graham Rahal and joins Power, Dixon, Takuma Sato, Mike Conway, Ryan Briscoe and Josef Newgarden as recipients of the engine penalty.

For a look at the lineup, go here.

Still, it was a satisfying effort for Wilson and his Dale Coyne Racing team after hearing rumbles during the week about the 5-point, $7500 penalty they incurred after winning at Texas. While Wilson insists the punishment fit the crime, as the part left on the car added drag and gave him no advantage, he was happy that they came back a week later with a solid performance.

"The confidence has helped a lot. I feel like we have made some progress in understanding this car and what it is looking for," Wilson said. "We've been chipping away at it and making the car better and better, and I'm having a lot of fun.

"We were very pleased with last week, there was a concern about the 'legality' (of his win) but that's why we've tried to come back and back it up and prove that we are here and here to stay."

Wilson's only regret about the penalty is that it won't give him the chance to race Franchitti to the green flag, something he was looking forward to doing. Still, his second-place qualifying position is a career best at the Mile, topping his third starting spot in 2005 while in the Champ Car series.

That confidence he spoke of is why he has reason to believe that he can bring home a win from the 12th starting spot.

"I'm not writing off this race just yet," he said. "A 10-spot penalty here is better than on a road course, and hopefully we are in a great position. We've got a great race car, I'm hoping we can get back to the front and be there at the end again."

Other notes: Franchitti's last pole came at New Hampshire last year, a span of 12 races...Hunter-Reay's starting spot is his best since winning the pole for the Champ Car race in 2004...Power qualified fourth, marking his third top-5 qualifying effort in four races at The Mile...Saturday's race (225 laps/225 miles) goes off at 12:30 CDT and will be broadcast on ABC.

Indy Lights Race

Polesitter Tristan Vautier took the lead from the green flag and led wire-to-wire to post his second win of the season, beating runner-up Sebastian Saavedra to the checkered flag by .3370 seconds. The Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver also won the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, and Friday's victory propelled him to the top spot in the season points standings. Vautier now has 241 points and leads Esteban Guerrieri -- who finished third Friday -- by three points.

"We put the car on the ground this morning and it felt amazing," Vautier said. "After two runs we got it tuned and we were great all day."

Vautier held a comfortable lead for much of the race, only being pressured by Saavadra on the two restarts. But Saavedra made it interesting in the closing laps as lapped traffic brought Vautier into his crosshairs. He got a good look in turn two with about 10 laps to go and got right up to Vautier's left rear tire, but couldn't complete the pass.

"For those last 10 laps I was pushing and giving everything I've got," said Saavedra, who finished 26th in the Indianapolis 500. "I guess I'm pleased. I'm not happy because I wanted that first place but it's very important points for the championship."

Vautier's win was also a historical one for SSM, as it represents the team's 50th win in Indy Lights competition.


Friday At The Mile!

It's 11:20 a.m. and I am wired in at the Milwaukee Mile media center. I'm going to be playing some musical chairs all day long as I didn't check the box for "deadline room" and do not have an official spot. Details, details!

Lots of racing media peeps are in the house, as I have already seen ESPN's Jamie Little and John Oreovicz as well as the Indy Star's Curt Cavin. Oh yeah, and Robin Miller is here too. I didn't recognize him at first since he is dressed like he's heading out on a 5-mile run. I'm going to try really hard to stay out of their way as they actually have jobs and deadlines.

So anyway, it's just over 80 degrees here and not a cloud in the sky...a great day to be at the track! If you are near Milwaukee, get here! Racing goes on all afternoon long as IndyCar qualifying starts at 4 and the Indy Lights race won't go off until about 5:40 p.m., with infield activities running until 9.

If you aren't nearby, cancel your plans for tomorrow, fill up your tank and make the drive. I only caught the last few minutes of practice but this is a cool place. The cars are fast and you can see all the way around the track from almost any seat!

Right now there is a pretty decent crowd for 11 in the morning, hopefully that improves as the day goes on. I don't think I am alone in saying this is a make-or-break weekend for IndyCar at the Mile. It is up to us to prove that we want racing here, as well as other ovals around the country. Put up or shut up. I'm here as a media guy today, and I am coming back as a fan tomorrow. I'm doing my part, how about you?

Sermon over, let's talk about racing. Practice just concluded for the Indy cars and the speed chart looks really, really interesting.

Josef Newgarden sits in P1 right now with a lap around the 1.015-mile (officially) oval at 165.916 mph, followed by Helio Castroneves (165.268) and EJ Viso (164.821). Viso has been the busiest driver this morning, turning 67 laps to lead all drivers.

Alex Tagliani, last week's pole-sitter, is fourth at 163.377 and JR Hildebrand rounds out the top five (163.179). Probably the biggest surprise is that Rubens Barrichello is sixth on the pylon at 162.285.

Right now, the bigger names are P10 and below, as Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Marco Andretti, Oriol Servia, James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson (last week's Texas winner), Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power occupy positions 10 through 19, respectively. Can't read too much into that right now, with another practice session in about 90 minutes they might be working on tomorrow's setups instead.

On the Indy Lights side, Sebastian Saavedra leads the way at 143.984 mph and Gustavo Yacaman is P2 at 142.943. Lights qualifying begins in just about five minutes.

Oh yeah, one interesting thing about the Mile this weekend is that the outside walls are painted blue -- except for the backstretch which is in GoDaddy green -- no doubt a nod of respect to Boise State and their blue turf. It's unique, I think it will look pretty cool on TV.

12:45 p.m

The Indy Lights race will start an all-Sam Schmidt Motorsports front row as Tristan Vautier put his car on the pole at 146.884, while teammate Victor Carbone was P2 at 146.429. Bryan Clauson, driving for Fan Force United this weekend, will start ninth after turning a lap at 141.418. Clauson may need some more practice time to adjust to being back on pavement after winning the 30-lap feature in Putnamville, Ind. last night (kidding).

Saavedra, who starts third, is in final practice at 139.161, just a tick faster than Gustavo Yacaman (138.713). I will admit I know little about Lights, so I'm looking forward to checking out the race and learning a little more about the drivers.

By the way, they have a little hardware displayed in the lobby of the media center. One lucky driver gets to take this home tomorrow afternoon.

1:45 p.m.

We are about 30 minutes into the second practice session and Justin Wilson is sitting in P1 with a speed of 164.785, while Newgarden (164.270) and Castroneves (163.927) take the next two spots.

One thing to note is that Will Power and Scott Dixon, the top two in points, are 9th and 11th so far today. Don't forget that they will suffer 10-grid penalties this weekend, so if they don't get faster they will have a lot of work to do tomorrow.

It has gotten very warm here with the air temperature at the start of practice up to 87 degrees and the track temp is sitting at 114. With no chance of shade settling over any of the track it should warm up even more as the afternoon wears on. 

Mike Conway and Oriol Servia are way off the pace, sitting 24th and 25th at 155.760 and 154.274, respectively.

Walking up and down pit lane, and I seeing plenty of teams swapping out suspension parts to try and find more grip. Don't forget, they have the big wings bolted on the cars this weekend, so finding a road course-type balance will be important.

This is my first trip to the Mile, and while the corners aren't as flat as they look on TV, they have little banking. Still, the cars look good in traffic and there should be a lot of passing in the race. Speaking of traffic, with 25 cars and a 1-mile track, drivers will almost always be in traffic, which will make things interesting.

Right now Robin Miller is sitting just a few feet from me doing some work on his phone. Contrary to what you may think, he is not always as loud as he comes across on TV! OK, I'm trying to eavesdrop a little but I can't pick up a word of what he is saying! Looking for some info on the replacement race for China perhaps? If you haven't heard, Texas bowed out this morning, making that deck shuffled again.

3:10 p.m.

Back in the media center after a long conversation with Pippa Mann and an interview with Sam Schmidt Motorsports engineer Kent Boyer, who is the lead engineer for Oliver Webb in the Lights series. He grew up just down the road from Aurora so that one was for the local paper. I'll post the link to that when it appears.

My conversation with Pippa was very, very interesting. After following racing for 30 years, I know a pretty decent amount about the sport, but to talk to someone like that just takes knowledge to a whole new level. There are just so many small, technical things that drivers to behind the wheel of a car, and she explained things in great detail but in a way I could understand. She just found out the will be doing the Lights race on IndyCar Radio, so listen if you can!

I mentioned that I saw the changes that teams were making to the car, and she called it a "mechanical setup". Boyer said that this track is 50 percent engineering and 50 percent driver. Lots of variables to get it right.

Which is a perfect segue into the 2nd practice session. Justin Wilson found something and jumped to the top of the timing and scoring chart, rolling around at 164.765 mph. Could he be evolving into an ovelmeister? He is also on the list of engine changes, so he moves back regardless of his position.

While I'm at it, here is the update list of 10-grid penalties, which now numbers seven: Takuma Sato, Dixon, Wilson, Newgarden, Power, Mike Conway and Ryan Briscoe. This will shake up things big time!

Newgarden is second on the practice grid at 164.270, Helio is third (163.927), Viso fourth (163.370) and Graham Rahal (163.330) round out the top five. Barrichello is still sixth while Hinchcliffe, Hildebrand, Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay complete the top 10.

The sun has just been beating down all day, I will be interested to see what the track temperature is once qualifying starts. Here is the qualifying order:

James Jakes
EJ Viso
Graham Rahal
Oriol Servia
Simon Pagenaud
Alex Tagliani
Ed Carpenter
Tony Kanaan
JR Hildebrand
Josef Newgarden
Takuma Sato
James Hinchcliffe
Will Power
Helio Castroneves
Rubens Barrichello
Mike Conway
Justin Wilson
Scott Dixon
Ryan Hunter-Reay
Ryan Briscoe
Katherine Legge
Dario Franchitti
Simona de Silvestro
Marco Andretti
Charlie Kimball

5:10 p.m.

Dario Franchitti found something after the last practice and is the polesitter with a 2-lap average of 168.737, while Justin Wilson rolled to a 168.287 for the tentative second spot. Presser just finished, Lights race goes off in 30 minutes. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Soapbox Tuesday!

To quote the legendary Charlie Steiner (formerly of ESPN and now an LA Dodgers broadcaster)'s Tuesday already! Two days of work down, two more to go and then it is Milwaukee IndyFest time! Until then here are a few things that have crossed my mind this week:

*Texas Wrap. Lots of chatter from Texas is still going on, mostly surrounding the future of the event and the fines levied against race winner Justin Wilson. First, the thoughts of Texas going forward. While some (like Curt Cavin) believe a future event is a 50/50 proposition, I think it will still happen, only because despite what he says Randy Bernard knows that he needs Texas. How do you replace an event that is a staple (and important constant) on your schedule, AND find another venue that is going to draw 60-70,000 on a race night? Sure, Eddie Gossage holds the cards here and the series won't get the best of deals, but until they find something better, they will be dancing partners now and in the future. Until you reach the point that tracks want (and need) you and not the other way around, you will always be on the short end of business deals.

Was a bit disappointed to see Wilson's penalty. Obviously because of the nature of the fine ($7,500 and five points) and the explanation that it was an oversight on the part of the peeps in pre-race tech, in the scope of things it probably isn't a big deal. And, as was mentioned, if the part was so important, why did they qualify the car 17th in the first place? Still, to some it looks bad and puts a bit of a cloud over his win. It shouldn't, he was the best car and driver Saturday night. Besides, with a lack of transparency on the part of race control in the past, how many times did something like this happen in the past and it just wasn't reported? By the way, Ed Carpenter drew a fine and a one-point deduction for a wickerbill issue.

*It looks like no race in China. I think the whispers going around are true in that the Aug. 19 race in Qingdao is not going to happen. It looks like the race is going to be a victim of a political battle in the area as the incoming mayor isn't as stoked for the event as the outgoing mayor was when he set up the race. Too bad, while the event would have sucked for us in the States (like Motegi did last year) I was interested to see how the Chinese would take to the race. Oh well.

Now the question becomes how they plan to fill out that date in order to satisfy the contractual obligations to series sponsor Izod. The popular belief is that Road America might be a possibility as there is an ALMS event there that weekend so they could fit IndyCar into the schedule. I don't know about that one as Milwaukee will have been just two months prior, but maybe people would dig Road America since it was long a staple on the CART circuit. Cavin mentioned on Trackside tonight that Bernard may have as many as five venues on his mind, particularly Kentucky and maybe even Pocono. I could accept the former, in fact if it happened maybe I would make the trip down there for the first time, but the latter is intriguing if it could be set up quickly enough. Pocono is a great open-wheel track and now that it is more compliant in terms of safety it might be a good place to race either now or in the future. Don't forget, the track is less than 100 miles from Manhattan -- I know, it would be a bit of a stretch to say it would be in the New York market -- and millions of people live within 100 miles of the venue. Promote it right, and even try to sell the local NASCAR fans on the race, and it might work out well.

*Iowa! I will write plenty on Milwaukee this weekend so I'm going to skip ahead to next weekend in Iowa as drivers were there testing today. Didn't hear a lot of news from out that way, but I'm sure Pressdog might have something later, so check out the Dawg as he always has great content.

I did hear of two items, though. The first is that Scott Dixon blew up a Honda and Will Power did the same to a Chevy, allegedly in spectacular fashion too. No word yet on whether or not they will be facing a 10-grid penalty either this weekend or next, but honestly, as we have discovered this year it's not a disadvantage to start midfield. Of the seven races this season, four of them have been won by drivers starting ninth or worse, and two of the last three races have been won by drivers starting way back (Dario Franchitti 16th at Indy and Wilson 17th at Texas). I think it adds to the entertainment factor, because say a driver qualifies third and is dropped to know they have a fast car, and it is fun to watch them try and move up.

(EDIT! According to the Associated Press, both Dixon and Power will get 10-grid penalties in Milwaukee this week.)

Speaking of entertainment, I have heard a few drivers have spoken out about the qualifying races that will set the field at Iowa next weekend. Power called it "gimmicky" and other drivers have said they don't like it because of a fear of tearing up equipment the day before a race.

Is it gimmicky? Of course it is! But as a born and raised Midwesterner, that type of racing is the heart of our sport, and I think the fans at Iowa will have a blast watching. And guys, if you haven't noticed, IndyCar is working at bringing in more fans and getting more eyes to watch on TV. If it takes something like this to get people interested, it does. It's different and is worth trying. No it shouldn't be a staple of every IndyCar stop, but if it works and is something unique to Iowa, I say go for it. Maybe sweeten the pot with some cash or an extra point or two for winning one of them.

And this idea of trashing equipment. Please, stop being wussies and act like racers! Nobody wants to tear up cars, I get that, but it just seems there is a faction of drivers who take issue to something at pretty much every stop on the circuit. I love watching Power drive -- as I have stated more than once here I think he is one of the finest road racers in the world -- but he gets his panties in a bunch an awful lot. I'm waiting for one driver to just say "you know what, I love to race, anytime...anywhere, and I have no problem mixing it up in one of the qualifiers". Somebody say it, please? The idea of tearing up cars is just as lame as it would be for other pros to complain about All-Star games because of the risk of injury. Sometimes you have to do something for the fans, it's part of the job and you do it. Put some pride on the line and get after it.

Besides, how is it any different than the Gatorade Duels? Because of the Top 35 program and the fact you can win at Daytona from anywhere in the field, there is really little to no incentive for most of those guys to race hard. But they still do. I'm guessing when the adrenaline starts flowing they will have a different opinion, and I have several drivers who I think will go out there and put on a good show. If it isn't your bag, drop to the back of the field, drive in circles for 20 miles and shut the hell up.

That's it for today! I will be wired in at the Mile by around 11 a.m. Friday. Look for random streams of consciousness and a Twitter blowup, just like I did in Indy!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Texas Wrap-Up

Well, at least part one. I may throw another post or two together about Saturday night as the week goes on, once I rehash a few more things in my mind.

Outside of Justin Wilson winning, which is a nice surprise and possibly one of the better stories we've had this year, the biggest positive of the night is that everyone seemed to get what they wanted. The drivers got cars they could drive, the fans got a lot of fun stuff to watch and everyone got home safely.

Now the question is: will we ever do it again? I'm gonna say yes, because Eddie Gossage and Randy Bernard are businessmen first, and Texas is good business. Now that we have found a combination of factors that make racing on 1.5-mile tracks doable, I think their "old married couple" routine continues and we get the race back in the future.

I'm going to hold off on clamoring for more, like many began saying last night, because I think the cars should test at every track to see if this formula works in other places. Once that happens, then we can think about bringing in more tracks to the mix...provided they want the series there.

Again, one thing we have to be clear isn't that IndyCar doesn't want to go to places like Chicagoland, Michigan, Kansas, etc. They do, but the keys to these decisions are held by others, and that doesn't always work out well.

But back to the racing. That's what I liked about last night, that it was real, actual racing! Drivers were forced to lift, cars were hitting their rev limiters, drivers had to shift, tires went off as the runs went along...that is what elite professional racing is supposed to be about.

It also led to some crazy moments, a lot of drama and a bunch of surprises. Scott Dixon dominated the event leading 133 of the first 174 laps until getting loose and crashing out late, several drivers came back from a lap down and finished strong, and of course, Graham Rahal's unfortunate Turn 4 wall kiss showed that nothing is a given until you cross under the checkers.

So let's run through the top 5 and a few other thoughts:

Justin Wilson. We had the idea that the winner of this race would be a true DRIVER, so we got what we wanted. Wilson is one of the most underrated drivers on the circuit -- sometimes I wonder what he would do in a Ganassi or Penske ride -- and certainly his technical skills rise to the top in a race like this. It was Wilson's first win since taking Watkins Glen in 2009, and the first win by a non-Penske or Ganassi team this year. He's not considerd an "oval" guy but shows flashes here and there, especially at Indy two weeks ago, that he can drive on them quite well. He has momentum and Milwaukee is another driver's track, so it's right up his alley.

Graham Rahal. What have I said week in and week out about Graham's luck? It just sucks. He looked like he had the car at the end of the race but his exits just kept getting higher and higher. Right before he crashed I was thinking of how it would be a big deal if he won (especially since he hasn't in four years) but he couldn't save the car one last time. But overall his weekend went well, and he did need that.

Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe didn't seem to be a factor for a while and then picked up the pace later on in the race. Led five laps and kept his good mojo going as well. He's won in Milwaukee too.

James Hinchcliffe. Hinch just keeps piling up top-5 finishes and is back to sitting third in points, just 12 behind Dixon in the runner-up slot. Detroit looks to be the outlier of what is one of the best overall seasons in the series so far.

JR Hildebrand. After qualifying at a Lotus-like 202 mph he was a rocket from the get-go, moving up in the field right from the start and improving 18 positions over his starting spot. I just saw a note where he actually went a lap down TWICE but still was able to recover and drive his way through the field. It was his second top-5 of the season to go along with his effort at Long Beach.

The penalty. We all know that Power blocked Tony Kanaan late in the race. Even Power took responsibility for it and felt bad about ruining Kanaan's day. One of the fastest cars on the track at the time of their contact, Kanaan had to stop and have his nose replace for the second time on the night (they actually used one of Rubens' Barrichello's) and lost a lap to finish 11th. I guess what makes it worth talking about, then, is the fact that it was called at all. I doubt it would have been called prior to this season, but Beaux Barfield continues to keep making the correct decisions.

Some other thoughts: Simon Pagenaud did well finishing sixth, and James Jakes ran a smart race and finished 10th...Power, the points leader, lost a lap on his penalty and placed eighth...I like Katherine Legge, but given the way the cars drove and the race played out, I wonder what Sebastien Bourdais would have done...I really, really don't know where Marco Andretti's head is sometimes. I can understand being worried about the car fire, but to just climb out of the car without being told and losing six laps while being strapped back in is one of the dumbest things he's ever done. His lack of mental toughness is mind-boggling...Speaking of mind-boggling, Ed Carpenter commenting on his radio during the race about the fans watching a boring race was just bizarre. His 12th-place finish made him look like he was bored...Did Dario Franchitti's handling issues early on in the race get him a little spooked? He was so far off the pace he looked like one of the backmarkers he likes to complain about. I'm not saying his car wasn't right, but he wasn't thrilled to be there in the first place.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Texas Preview

A little late to the table this weekend, but oh well, I will be more than making up for it next week at Milwaukee. On the grounds with an official media credential in hand, I'm going to be live blogging all of Friday's events. If you are in a 1,000-mile radius of the Mile, get there! OK, that's a stretch, but make it to the race, the only way we fans can show IndyCar that ovals are wanted and viable is to show up.

Indy was big as usual, Texas will draw well and they will pack it in at Iowa, so it's up to us to get it done at the Mile as well.

This week is fun, Texas -- or more officially the Firestone 550 -- is always a great show, and it's a Saturday night race to boot. It's what racing is all about in America: you work hard during the week, then race on Saturday night. Oh yeah. Why do I have the song "Pink Houses" playing in my head right now?

Qualifying is in the books, so let's start there and look ahead to the rest of the weekend.

*Tags does it again! Bryan Herta Autosport continues to show that dropping the Lotus and sitting out Sao Paulo was a great decision. Alex Tagliani was quick in race trim at Indy, qualfied third and moved up after an early electrical issue at Belle Isle and Friday picked up his second straight pole at Texas (and eighth career overall) with a two-lap average of 215.591 mph.

It was also the first time this season a non-Penske or Ganassi car had taken P1.

It was a very competitive qualifying session, and the key became who could put in a solid second lap without dropping off too much. Will Power was among several drivers who turned a first lap at over 216 mph but couldn't hang on, so the points leader (but you wonder for how much longer) will start fifth.

Tags barely squeaked past front-row mate Dario Franchitti, as the two driver's runs were separated by just .0102 seconds. The gap between Franchitti and Graham Rahal is even smaller, just .0006 over the three-mile run. Rahal was another driver who hit 216 on his first lap but fell off the second time around and will start third, while Scott Dixon starts fourth.

Power is the fastest Chevrolet qualifier in the five-hole, while James Hinchcliffe, who sat on the pole for quite some time Friday, will start sixth.

*The racing. Tons and tons of testing and discussion between the drivers and the series leading up to this weekend still hasn't been resolved as of my press time. It seems to be an evolving thing as more discussion is following any action on the track and I'm sure the aero package will not be completely resolved until race time.

It's a fine line between pack racing and putting on a good show, and apparently everyone is trying to tip-toe that line as much as they can. I understand the driver's concerns, but racing is about everyone making things as safe as reasonably possible and then going out and running as hard as you can. I'll echo the sentiments of many other people: I'm all for safety and want to see all of these drivers home and in their beds Saturday night, but at the same time, racing involves risk, and I believe the IndyCar series has learned a lot of lessons in the last eight months and have applied them here.

Let's get this in writing: Texas is safe. If you recall we ran 550K there last year with one incident, and just off the top of my head I don't recall any serious crashes at TMS in several years. Racing is a test of driver, machine and yes, bravery. Texas is just a bit steeper and a bit more dangerous than anywhere else on the circuit, but that doesn't mean we take it off the schedule and no longer race there because we are worried about what MIGHT happen. If that is the case we might as well not race anywhere, or go sci fi and have the drivers race the cars from a pod in their garage (that might make a badass movie, come to think of it), sort of like drone aircraft.

From what I have deciphered, it seems there is a lot of disagreements between how much downforce to put in the cars. Some are not comfortable and want more, others are happy and want to run as is. Judging by the lap times in practice and qualifying, the drivers are still flat...what else do you expect IndyCar to do? This is supposed to be one of the top racing series in the world, and there are people that can't drive loose race cars? It's supposed to be a little uncomfortable, that's how you separate talent.

I'm not one of these let's-take-the-downforce-off-and-jack-it-up-to-1000 HP people, but I wouldn't mind some lifting and some talent needed to drive these cars. I hate to make the comparison, but part of the challenge in Cup is to drive loose race cars while lifting and braking, it should be the same here. There should be plenty of lifting and moving around in the race, and that is the way it should be.

*Honda vs. Chevy. The duel continues. Honda has somehow edged in front since the 500, and did again here Friday as it owned the top five spots in practice and the top four in qualifying. Still, I don't think the gap is as big as many think, because the guys leading the way for Honda (Dixon and Franchitti) are 1) with one of the series' power teams and 2) are two of the best in the business.

The top 10 qualifiers were split 6-4 in favor of Honda, and the ninth-place starter, Marco Andretti, was .29 seconds slower than Tags. I know that is an eternity in racing, but Honda isn't pulling away.

*Grid penalties. Mike Conway loses 10 spots from his eighth place on the grid for an engine change, while HVM swapped out Simona de Silvestro's Lotus. Josef Newgarden will start from the back as they had engine problems after the first practice and didn't present a qualifying attempt.

*Predictions! At 550 kilometers (342 miles), this will be the third-longest race of the year behind Indy and Fontana (400 miles). With the aero package the way it is I think the cream will definitely rise from the top.

That said, I'm going to give the win to Scott Dixon. I know Power had his stretch between Alabama and Sao Paulo where he was untouchable, but presented as a whole body of work, I think Dixon is having the best season in the series so far with a win and three seconds.

The rest of the podium isn't going to be much of a reach as I'm going to go with any one of four drivers: Franchitti, Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Yes I know HCN didn't qualify well but this sets up to be a race that will favor experience, and he has tons of it at TMS.

You know what? Just for grins I am going to add Oriol Servia, who will further prove that qualifying is highly overrated.

Another's going to be just like Indy. Although the two are completely different animals, I just think the same charactaristics that made Indy great will apply here. Expect a lot of lead changes and a couple of pushes from the back -- which is why I picked Helio. One thing many drivers mentioned after qualifying is that they had gearing issues, hitting the rev limiters too soon and affecting their laps. If someone gets that fixed, (Ed Carpenter, ahem), they could move.

*Lotus over/under. With de Silvestro sitting more than 10 mph behind the rest of the field, on a 1.5-mile track she will get little leeway, so let's set it at 10 laps. She deserves better.

*Let's hope this isn't the finale. There is some talk that for a lot of reasons this might be the the last race at Texas for the IICS. I think that would be a waste, and really, really sad. It's a good race and Texas has been a great partner for IndyCar since the dark days of the series.

Yeah, Eddie Gossage can be a pain in the butt, but the man regularly puts 70,000 people in the stands for our races. I think the future of the race will become clear after tomorrow night and we get through a race and decide if the track fits the DW12. Business is business, it makes sense for the two parties to stay together, and while the marriage is pretty dysfunctional, so long as the race goes well I see it continuing.

Plus, it is tied with Iowa as my favorite race in the series behind Indy, I want it to stay!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Couple of Social Media(ish) Notes

So I'm breaking my sabbatical a day early, but there were a couple of neat things that came down the line this week that is worth noting.

First, Milwaukee IndyFest has jumped into the Twitter fray with its Indy 26 program. Somehow through the power of the internets they were able to identify 26 of the more active Twitter users in the Milwaukee area. Each of those tweeps were assigned a driver that they will follow and tweet about over the course of the weekend. Sort of a Social Media Garage thing taken down to a one-on-one level. By the way Cassie Conklin, if you are reading this, what an idea for next year! I have dibs on Hinch.

Anyway, if you are active on Twitter, and you should be, check out this list and follow these folks for the weekend. Might be some cool stuff! Whatever becomes of it, I think it is a great idea that other events should copy.

I saw quite a few people on Twitter express their disappointment that many of the drivers and teams were not very active during the red flag period on Sunday at Belle Isle, and I second that. One thing that needs to be realized is that EVERYTHING represents an opportunity to promote drivers and the series on social media.

Yes, I do feel it is that important.

After all, for the most part, who are some of the more popular drivers in the series? The ones who are fan-friendly, and that goes up a notch to the guys/ladies who work it on social media. If you grow your driver, you grow your team and that grows IndyCar.

The second item I noticed today is that, by popular demand, IndyCar radio has made all of its broadcasts from this season's races available in podcast form on their website at If you have ever watched the YouTube highlights of each race you have heard the radio calls that are added to the video, and the crew does a nice job. Having grown up listening to a lot of radio, especially sports on the radio, I have a real soft spot for that kind of stuff. Besides, listening to races on the radio is actually pretty cool.

I will probably download and listen to Indy again sometime soon. Don't forget that the actual TV broadcasts are available on YouTube as well.

That's it for today. I'll throw some Texas notes in either tomorrow night or Saturday morning. Here's hoping for a big weekend!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Belle Isle -- In the Books, Let's Get Out of Town

I was covering a baseball game this afternoon so I had to listen to the first 45 laps of the Chevrolet Grand Prix of Belle Isle online. I made it home for most of the red flag session and the anti-climatic 15-lap dash to the end, so I think I am up to speed.

We were due for a crappy race, weren't we? I think when the schedule comes out next season this race, which has always been a snoozefest, should be AFTER the ovals. I don't want to harken back to the 1990s often, but Milwaukee was always a perfect event for the week after the 500. If it ain't broke...

I'll give credit to Roger Penske and Bud Denker for trying to bring racing back to Detroit, especially with Chevy back in the series. Still, they have to do something about that race course, which might be one of the worst layouts in the series.

Anyway, I'm pretty disgusted about today, so let's change things up a bit and throw out a few winners and losers.


Scott Dixon. I rarely rejoice when a Big Two car wins a race, although this week I will make an exception because this was was well-deserved. After finishing second three times this year, including a crusher at the Indy 500 last weekend, Dixie finally brought one home. He took the lead from the green flag and on the post-red flag restart snookered Will Power big time, then survived two more restarts to lead all 60 laps. He also moved just behind Power for second in points. It was also his 28th career open wheel win, breaking a tie with Johnny Rutherford and moving him one win behind Rick Mears as he continues one of the most unappreciated and underrated careers in racing history. And yes, I was one of those unappreciative types but have finally come around.

Dario Franchitti. The Indy 500 champ made another run from midfield this week, getting to the runner-up slot from the 14th starting position. He was again one of the fastest cars at the end, and with three ovals coming up and sitting fourth in points he is working his way up the classification. This series is too deep and too diverse (between ovals, roads and streets) to give upon anyone just yet.

Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman bounced back from an MIA May to pick up his third podium of the season. He sounded like he was having fun out there Sunday, but needs to improve his oval performance.

Oriol Servia. Again the hard charger of the weekend. No doubt he is very happy with Chevy power, finishing fourth at Indy and fifth at Belle Isle. To this point of the season, Servia has improved a total of 74 places over his starting position.


James Hinchcliffe. Hinch was the one who got all of the madness started when he hit a loose piece of track and went straight into the tire barrier, and his profanity-laced tirade was justified as he was clearly not at fault for the accident. Still, his 21st place finish drops him to fifth in points. He will be happy to leave Belle Isle as he also failed to make the Firestone Fast 6 (or Nine for Indy) for the first time all year.

Will Power. Yes, fourth place is third loser this week. Power didn't claim the pole (upset No. 1) and never led a lap (upset No. 2), quite the departure from Barber, Long Beach and Sao Paulo. He has got to figure out a way to get through the ovals and the next three weeks because that noise he hears is a trainload of drivers getting closer to him at the top of the standings.

Takuma Sato. Taku crashes for the third time in the last four races (although the wreck at Long Beach wasn't his fault) and his awesomely crazy drive at Indy is starting to seem like a distant memory. He did well at Iowa last year and Milwaukee seems to suit his style so all is not lost.

IndyCar. I'm not going to pile on the way others have, because as I Tweeted this afternoon, a minor bump in the road in another series (or even sport) is cause for high drama for IndyCar. Of course, many of those wounds are self-inflicted by a jittery fan base, and that is something we have to get over. Beaux Barfield and company had a lot of tough decisions to make, and many of them caused the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth. The series just can't seem to win. In the end this was just the perfect capper to a crappy week for the series. I'm not covering for IndyCar here, I'm not happy with a few of the decisions and how they were communicated, but it wasn't the cluster many are calling it either. Obviously the series faces challenges that many do not (like racing on streets that are used by cars and trucks 350 days a year), and they didn't pull it off as flawlessly as everyone wanted them to. Get over it and move on.

Move on we do as Texas is, thankfully, just a few days away. Testing went well at Texas, and the drivers were very happy with the feel and performance of the cars there. Let's get there and get this one in the rear-view mirror as quickly as possible.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Detroit Rock City Edition

Is it another race weekend already? This one went pretty fast because 1) I didn't make it back to work until Wednesday and 2) I think I am still floating a bit mentally from the 500. Between watching highlights and rehashing with folks on Twitter, it's been nice to keep talking about it for a while longer. And outside of just the thrill of the race I had a great time, and creating lasting memories is part of the 500 as well.

Big doings in Detroit this weekend. Before I get into racing mode I want to give a shout out to Detroit Tigers pitcher Casey Crosby, who will be making his big league debut against CC Sabathia and the Yankees tonight. Casey is a 23-year-old left-hander who played his high school ball in my area and is someone I have gotten to know over the last few years.

Casey is just a good guy and I am so happy for this opportunity for him, especially because he has missed close to two pro seasons with arm injuries, including Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. He was added to the 40-man roster over the winter and when I spoke to him before Christmas he was excited to finally have the chance to get to the big leagues. He is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and throws 97 mph, and if he can throw strikes, something he struggles with a bit at times, I think he will be around for a while.

Anyway, back to IndyCar. Everyone had to get over their post-Indy hangover pretty quickly as they tested in Milwaukee on Tuesday before getting set to head to Detroit. I guess I should mention here that the official name of the race is the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. We'll just call it Belle Isle from here on out.

Plus I like that idea since that is also the name of the palatial Louisiana plantation Irwin M. Fletcher (Chevy Chase) inherits from his aunt in the movie Fletch Lives. Although it is nowhere close to being as funny as the original Fletch, it's not bad viewing late at night.

Anyway, the series last competed here in 2008 in a race won by Justin Wilson, who certainly has some good mojo coming with him from Indy. I will admit up front that Belle Isle is not one of my favorite tracks, but the DW12 has added excitement to every stop so far, and I don't see this as being an exception.

There are lots of storylines out there for the weekend: is Dario Franchitti back? Will Takuma Sato rebound from his disappointment? Does Will Power return to dominance?

I think the answer is "yes" to all of the above, but my eye this weekend is going to be on Sebastien Bourdais. Seb's been waiting for a weekend like this for a long, long time. After busting his tail to keep his Lotus competitive on the first four road/street courses (and for the most part succeeding) he's now on a lot more of a level playing field for the first time in a while. At worst, I see a podium out of this for him, and now that he will focus on the road courses only for the time being (with Katherine Legge driving the ovals) he is going to become more and more of a factor every time out.

Another guy to watch will be Oriol Servia. Now also driving a Chevy, he was very fast near the end of the 500 on his way to a hard-earned fouth-place finish, and if you remember last year he was more than racy on the road and street courses. Heck, he was racy everywhere while finishing fourth in points. We haven't seen the benefits of the Dreyer & Reinbold/Panther Racing sharing of secrets, but perhaps with a quality motor Servia can live up to his end.

On the other end of the grid, Simona de Silvestro and Graham Rahal each get detentions -- otherwise known as 10-grid penalties -- for engine issues at Indy. I thought it was a great idea to defer penalties until Belle Isle, although Simona probably wishes she could have gotten it out of the way at the Brickyard since she has done a commendable job on the twisties, but Rahal will once again be on an uphill climb on a race weekend. Is he ever going to catch a break?

On with a few predictions:

Pole -- Will Power. I have to go with WP until someone knocks him off this perch. By the way, is that new artwork he is sporting on his left arm real? First that is completely out of character given his buttoned-up nature (unless he is a bit different away from the track) and second, how in the world did he get the Captain to sign off on that? I figured Roger would let things go if you deliver him a championship or a 500, but otherwise, wow.

Race winner -- Sebastien Bourdais. As with my James Hinchcliffe pick from a week ago, I'm going out on a bit of a limb, but it's only the Internet so I can do that sort of thing. Can you imagine Bourdais and Power going at it down the stretch of a road or street race while laying down pole-worthy laptimes? Have some popcorn ready.

Podium contenders -- Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson. Power and Bourdais are givens, these four will battle for the third spot. Taku is rolling (he just needs to consistently get to the checkered flag), Hinch has been in the top 6 all year, Dixon is, well, Dixon, and Pagenaud has been racy too. Wilson was great at Indy, has won here before and was fast today. The talent pool in IndyCar is so deep right now, I just think a lot of races from here on in will be shootouts with lots of drivers in play.

Darkhorse -- Tony Kanaan. I badly want to get TK out of this category, but he is sort of stuck here for now until he breaks through and wins in 2012. His Indy run was epic, and he was fast in practice today, so you wonder if the 2007 winner of this event is bringing some great vibes along with him as well.

Qualifying is Saturday morning, with the race set for 3:30 p.m. EDT. Get through this one, and then it is on to more ovals! I see a lot of big changes in people's seasons and point standings between now and the Iowa race in three weeks.