Monday, February 25, 2013

Daytona -- Part 2

Last night's post was a little more about my impressions of Daytona as a fan, one that came while I was still wrapped up in the moment and the excitement of the weekend. But there have also been a couple of other things on my mind from the weekend that I wanted to share my thoughts about as well.

One of course is the horrific crash at the end of Saturday's Nationwide race where Kyle Larson's car went into the catch fence and spewed debris into the stands. It was one of those racing-gone-bad moments where the worst possible thing that could happen (short of a fatality) actually did happen.

First of all, good thoughts to everyone involved, especially the fans that are still recovering in the hospital. I think all of us who go to races understand in the back of our minds that there is an element of danger for the fans and that something like that could happen. It shouldn't, but even the best planning and safety features in place won't keep us 100 percent safe, just as is the case for the drivers.

Short of radically changing the way the barriers are built, it's hard to say what could be done to eliminate this happening again. However, Larson's car did shred through a part of the fence that opens up so fans can go in and out of the infield (or "ballfield" as it's called at Daytona), and that can be fixed. Really, there shouldn't be any sort of break or compromise in the catch fence anywhere near the fans.

I know that part of the experience for many fans is the chance to go onto the infield for pre-race festivities, or just a quicker way to get in and out of the track. I know Indy has something like that near turn 1, which gives fans the chance to enter and exit the infield area, but it's also a chance to walk on the track and is a cool photo spot. I took advantage of that last May.

I get that, but maybe it's time to find a different way for people to move about.

What happened Saturday is a direct result of the restrictor plates and the pack racing that follows. I have to admit, it was pretty exciting to watch a couple dozen cars race that close together, because it looks way different in person. It takes some serious skill to do what they do, and at times they are so close together it almost looks like a parking lot moving at 190 miles an hour.

Again, there is no hard and fast solution. You can't take the plates off, because that would add so much speed to the car the forces involved in a crash would make things seriously dangerous. It's one thing for an IndyCar to crash at 220 mph, and a completely different thing for a car weighing 2 1/2 times as much doing the same. Like Saturday's crash proved, you can only fight the laws of physics (which is what much of racing is based upon) for so long, and at some point when you fight the law, the law will win.

The other thing you are fighting is the fan base. NASCAR created this...they created a series based on speed and danger and crashes. They tweak the rules -- like green/white/checker finishes -- that set up the potential for wrecks and chaos. And it works. Most of the incidents in Sunday's race happened right in front of me, and there was lots of cheering going on when they did.

The fans expect three hours of constant excitement, and are disappointed when it isn't given to them. On Thursday I was waiting in line for some food and I heard a fan behind me complain about how boring the first race was until the crash happened with less than 10 laps to go. They must have been really pissed about the second duel, which went green from start to finish.

The plate races are some of the biggest and most popular races of the season, and I'll admit that I get hooked on them too. Most of the time, they certainly aren't boring!

It's just that there is a level of expectation that can't be attained week-in and week-out for 36 weeks. Just like in the NFL you don't get excitement in all 16 games, and baseball? Over six months and 162 games, there are a lot of clunkers in there. But you have a portion of the fanbase that gets really hot and bothered when they are not entertained like it's the Roman Coliseum.

I enjoyed yesterday's race because I have followed the sport for a long time, and being there gave me the chance to watch a lot of things that you don't see on TV. For instance, at one point about 2/3 through the race, Jimmie Johnson was stuck all alone on the bottom of the track and was absolutely getting freight trained heading into turn 1. He needed to get up to the high side, fast, because otherwise he was going to end up at the back of the line and would be in a world of hurt.

Just then, his spotter found him a hole in the top side that wasn't much bigger than the car. Johnson slipped into that spot, and looking back I think that was one of those little things over the course of a race that made a big difference. At the time, I filed that away, just as I do during a baseball game when a guy hits a ball to the right side to move a runner to third, who later scores on a fly ball. No matter the sport, little things add up to big things, and that is how you win.

Another thing I found interesting was the constant chatter and strategy of the pit stops. Whether teams wanted to take two tires or four, or just take fuel, or even who to come in with and who to work with on the way out. There was a ton of good stuff to find out of yesterday's race if you knew where to look.

That's the kind of stuff I like, but on the NASCAR side, folks like me are in the minority. That isn't being critical of the stock car fan base, at all, it's just that they have been conditioned to expect something different. I believe it is because the fan base is so big and diverse in terms of their knowledge that they have to find a middle ground that appeals to everyone. So they focus on the bootlegging roots of the sport, the banging and fighting and the personalities and the drama.

Hey, it is fun. The people in and around the sport are great (the folks I met over the weekend were insanely friendly), and it is all about the fans, and it especially caters to families. I still prefer IndyCar -- because open wheel racing is beautiful and fast and the drivers have to be so well-rounded -- and I always will, but it was pretty amazing to spend time around a series that has its crap together and cares about the fans above everything else.

Holy cow, that is a whole post in itself. Could a Part 3 be in the offering? Yeah, maybe.

Anywhoo, I wanted to also talk a little about the Gen 6 car. From a looks standpoint, it is way better than the COT, which gets a thumbs-up from me. At speed I still couldn't tell the difference between the makes of the cars, but I'll figure that out soon enough.

How it races? That's a big TBD. To be determined. The problem with yesterday's race is that the only line that consistently worked was the high line, which made the race look more like Darlington than Daytona. Some drivers were able to make the bottom line work for a while, Johnson being one of them, but with track position so critical, few wanted to take the chance and go down there unless they absolutely had to, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. did on the last lap.

Many people are talking about Daytona's racing surface, which has been in place for two years, and how it has to age a little bit. Unfortunately they can't speed up that process, like spending a couple of months a year buried in snow, but that might have something to do with it. Not on that, but it's about the tires, too. Goodyear brought a tire that was crazy bulletproof, and in both the Budweiser Duels and the race many teams either went with two-tire stops or just double-stinted all together.

Sunday, Danica Patrick only took fuel on her last stop, meaning that she went right around 60 laps on her final set of tires. I'll have to watch the race again to make sure, but she only stopped five times and did a four-tire change twice. Call me old school, but a racing tire should not last for 150 miles! I'm sure other drives did the same. The Gen 6 was designed with putting the car in the driver's hands a little more, but when the tires don't go down and they don't actually have to drive it, what's the difference?

We saw how getting a tire to fall off the right way worked at they IndyCar race at Texas last year, and lo and behold, the race was won by one of the more technically sound drivers in the series (Justin Wilson). Fontana was a lot of the same, and was won by one of the better oval drivers in the business in Ed Carpenter, who might be good for at least one oval win a year for the rest of his life. Of course, under that criteria, Johnson probably wins yesterday anyway, but if I could ask for anything in the sport to end, it's flat out, foot to the floor racing.

Somehow I have the feeling NASCAR will get this figured out as the season moves along.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Because it was awesome, because I spent two hours trying to get out of Lot 7 and because I was bump drafted on the way back to Orlando (almost!) I am going rogue and writing about my Daytona experience.

It was my first time to Daytona, and I came away really impressed. When I walked into the track for the Budweiser Duels on Thursday, the first thing I noticed was that it looked nothing like it did on TV. I mean, I had been watching they Daytona 500 almost as long as I have watched the Indy 500, in fact, I'm pretty certain that I watched the famous 1979 race with my dad. Like most, we were snowed in, what else were we going to do?

I checked out the Duels on Thursday with my mom, who as always is an awesome companion. She is 75 years old but was a true trooper all day long. And she actually liked it a lot. A new tradition perhaps?

For the race, I brought along my girlfriend and trusted sidekick, Darcy, who has now been to just two race tracks in her life...Daytona and Indy. Not bad. She had never seen a real race in person, so it was a very new experience for her too.

Anyway, as far as the race went, I really enjoyed it. Now, I know that many watching at home found it boring, and there were some slow parts, but overall we had a great time and there were some stretches where the racing was good if you knew what to look for.

Besides, when I mentioned to my mom on Thursday that I overheard a guy talk about how boring he felt the first Duel had been she said that while she wished there had been more passing, it was worth watching just to appreciate the skill of the drivers and how they are able to do what they do. My sentiments exactly. 

Remember what I said about the track looking different than on TV? Watching the cars go two and three-wide in person and to see how close they get to each other was really impressive.

I'm going to highlight a few drivers in the top 10 and a couple of other noteworthy items.

Winner: Jimmie Johnson. For a long time, I wasn't a fan of Johnson's, but this epic video with Rick Mears started to change my mind. His run was truly Mears-ian in that he kept the leaders in sight until the final 100 miles then worked his way to the front. If the race had gone one more lap, I'm not quite sure if he could've held off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr., who followed much the same script Five Time did, but he crossed the line first and that's all that mattered.

His trophy case is starting to stack up: two Daytona 500 wins, four Brickyard victories, 61 wins and five championships. He turns 38 this year and it's getting time to start looking at where he stands among the all-time greats. You'd have to guess he gets to around 75 wins, not too shabby.

4th place: Brad Keselowski. Last year's Sprint Cup champion had a day that was just so NASCAR, banged up his car in two separate crashes, at one point went in and out of the pits each lap during a caution for repairs (officially he pitted 12 times), and fell as far as 33rd place on the pylon. But still, when it all sorted out, he was fighting for the win at the head of the field. He got a huge break when he pitted before everyone else just before a caution came out that kept him out front, but like Ryan Newman, who finished fifth, he had to grind through a tough day, which is what champions do.

8th place: Danica Patrick. The pole sitter surprised a lot of people with her run today, me included. But she drove a smart race and kept her head together throughout the day. I listened to her a lot on the scanner (more on that later) and thought she worked well with her spotter and crew chief. A bad decision on the last lap shuffled her back several spots, but that is a mistake she probably had to make so she could learn from it.

Patrick also found her way to the point for several laps mid-race, making me one of probably just a few people in this world (besides her mom and dad probably) to have seen her lead both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. I think that's kinda cool.

My pick to click, Tony Stewart, saw his day pretty much end when he got caught up in the Lap 33 melee that also took out another favorite, Kevin Harvick, who had looked really impressive all week long. I thought Smoke was one of the few drivers that could work his car anywhere in traffic (Harvick was the other), but he didn't get it going before Sunday's accident. He came out after spending almost 100 laps in the garage, but pretty much drove around in circles the rest of the day.

Still, he had one of the funnier lines of the day as his car came to a stop after he wrecked when he radioed the following back to his crew: "Awwww, f**k...I'm sorry guys." Pretty classic stuff.

Having a scanner is a must. Darcy brought up a good point when she said listening to the scanner helped her learn more about the drivers and the sport. I just like to listen to what gets said back and forth, and how it all differs from driver to driver.

As a newbie, Patrick and her spotter were always talking. When she was coming in for a stop she double and triple-checked the procedures, like whether she was to take off when she felt the car come off the jack or at the sound of crew chief.

While she has a reputation for raging over the radio, Patrick was pretty subdued, although she did have some choice words near the end of the race when her spotter told her Earnhardt's spotter had complained about her backing up into him. Junior's spotter passed along the message that he'd allow it one more time but the next time he was wrecking her. Glad it didn't come to that.

Oh yeah, and if anyone was wondering, she never asked how Ricky Stenhouse was doing.

Many of the experienced drivers, like Johnson, Gordon and Keselowski, just kept to themselves and drove with little being said most of the time. I was hoping for some entertainment from Keselowski, but he was pretty business-like.

After taking some time to digest the weekend, I can say for sure that I will be going back again, maybe as soon as the July race. But at the same time, for me, it wasn't the same as Indy. Now, I'm not saying that because this is a primarily open wheel blog and I don't want to upset my usual readers (ha, ha), but while it was an electric place to be Sunday, I just didn't get the feel-it-all-the-way-to-my-core feeling like I do when I go to Indy. There is a lot to be said about traditions that go back more than a century.

Put it this way: three months after Daytona held its first race in 1959, Indy hosted the 500 for the 43rd time. You just can't compare the two.

Not saying that's a bad thing, it was just different. Indy still has me, and always will.

Speaking of, now that we have Daytona out of the way, is it May yet?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

IMS Going Under the Knife?

It appears the Cathedral of Speed may be getting a facelift.

That's according to a release that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway put out Friday evening, highlighting a proposed legislation to pump between $70 and $100 million in public funds for a major renovation of IMS.

The news itself is kind of shocking for one reason: IMS has a very proud history of taking care of its own business. Despite some major projects that have been undertaken in the last several decades, not once have they asked the state of Indiana for money.

Maybe this time it is a must. After all, the Speedway was looking at some necessary improvements to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act after the track recently settled a suit that requires an overhaul to some of their facilities.

You also have to think the timing of this coincides with Daytona International Speedway's plan for a major overhaul over the next couple of years. One so expansive that the possibility of surrendering the track's July Cup date in 2014 is a possibility.

I must say that many of the things listed in a release put out by IMS make sense, and are a long time coming. While the track has made some massive upgrades over the years, including the Pagoda, more seats on the north end of the race course, the pit road grandstands and suites, and of course the infield road course, much of the rest of the place looks nearly the same as it did when I first walked in there 34 years ago.

The release outlines the improvements this way:

"Potential projects that could be implemented by IMS because of this legislation include installing lights for night events at the 2.5-mile oval, the addition of high-definition video boards, LED scoring and information boards, technological upgrades designed for increased fan communication, structural renovations to stands, upgrades to seating and restrooms, and infrastructure improvements to parking, tunnels, gates and fan access points."

I'll take on the stuff I like first. The video and scoring boards are a must, and if by "technological upgrades" they are talking about Wifi and other amenities, that gets them into the 21st century, which is good.

I'm also all for improving seating (And that includes suites, they are big money. Huge) and restrooms (Which are an absolute dump. It's 2012 and we are still using troughs in the men's room, really?), as well as the infrastructure improvements. Honestly, those are a long time coming. On race day, getting into the track is a cluster, whether you are trying to park inside the track or even enter through one of the gates. The gate area at 25th and Georgetown is horrible, and as race time approaches it requires a long wait to get into the grounds. Other entry areas are not any better.

So for the ideas that are in thought to improve the fan experience...I'm all for those. The one thing I'm not too hip on is the lights. Not that I'm old school and wouldn't want to see them, but the main reason people want lights is to try and improve the Brickyard 400, and my answer to that is, you can do everything you want to try and improve it, but if the product on the track doesn't get any better, there is no point.

I'm not totally against lights. In fact, I'd like to have them there as a way to make sure races could get run to completion. Lights would have enabled the running of the last 33 laps of the 2007 Indy 500, because after the second shower at about 7 p.m. local time that gave the win to Dario Franchitti, the sun soon came out and after drying the track the race could have resumed and completed.

Trust me, I love night racing, but putting up lights isn't the cure-all that some people imagine. The 500 wouldn't miraculously become a ratings bonanza by running the race on Saturday night, and the Brickyard wouldn't turn into an exciting race because it was run after dark. Maybe the curiosity would bring people in for a while, but in the long run it wouldn't change things.

I'm not opposed to more events at the Speedway, either. Whether an event is being held there or not, every day of the year it costs money to support the track. People work there and there is always something to do. If more events is what it takes for the track to stay profitable, then that's fine. They need ways to generate revenue.

Plus, now that I've gotten used to the idea of IMS being used for other events, I like it. If you want to be called the Racing Capital of the World, you should probably hold races there to prove it.

I guess if I had to pick a reason to be "for" this project, it would be twofold. One, it would improve our experience as fans, and that in itself might bring more fans in and two, more money into the Speedway would hopefully translate into more money into IndyCar. Not to mention, more events would mean more excuses to go to the track, which wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?

In the end, what matters most is that the track remains a viable and forward-thinking place both now and in the future. It's like here in Chicago...I am a Cubs fan and love Wrigley Field. It represents the history of baseball. Still, I don't mind heading to the south side and US Cellular Field, because it's modern: it has better lighting, better amenities, video boards, a better sound system and is just an overall better place to watch a ballgame.

Even though my allegiance lies on the north side, I enjoy games at the Cell. In fact, last year I did the double, I saw a Cubs game in the afternoon then rode the Red Line south to see a Sox game that night. Awesome experience, by the way.

As I've said before, the Hulman family have been incredible curators of one of the greatest and most historic race courses ever built. I'm going to trust them on this one, and hopefully a couple of years down the road they combine history and technology into one incredible place to watch racing.

(Editor's note: I decided not to touch the whole "supporting private sports organizations with public funds" topic with a 10-foot pole. I have thoughts on both sides of the issue, but instead decided to focus on what this renovation would mean to IMS and race fans.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Frenetic Friday -- Lots of News

First of all, thanks so much to everyone who listened to Blogger Night during Trackside on 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. I had a great time sharing the evening with my blogging contemporaries and enjoyed sharing our passion for the sport.

If you want to check out the podcast, you can do so here. Enjoy!

After getting a little long-winded about myself and the blog, I eventually talked about the drivers of this era. That will be a blog for this weekend, because with only five minutes to talk I have a lot more to say about the topic.

But as is expected thanks to Mr. Murphy, on the night bloggers had the stage on Trackside a bunch of IndyCar news unfolded. I expect the news to come fast and furious over the next few weeks as we now sit just six weeks away from St. Pete. Lots of things need to come together quickly for those who are still on the outside looking in.

*EJ Viso found a seat once the music stopped and will be part of a joint venture with Andretti Autosport and HVM. Viso had been trying to start his own team but found it rough sledding, but this setup keeps HVM in the series (after the cluster that was last season where they ran with the Lotus and then lost Simona de Silvestro to KV Racing) and Viso gets some top-notch personnel helping him and data from the AA camp.

My feelings are mixed on Viso. He shows flashes that he looks like he is getting it, like his great run at Milwaukee last year, then closes out the season with seven finishes of P16 or worse in the last eight races. Which brings me to...

*James Jakes heading to Rahal Letterman Lanigan. On Trackside they called Jakes a "competent" driver, and I think that about fits. He's finished 22nd in the points in each of the last two seasons, and barring some sort of miracle that's about where he will finish this year.

But, like Viso, he brings money, and that talks in racing. Always has, always will. I'm sure any of the parties involved would love to have Ryan Briscoe behind the wheel of their cars, but it appears he doesn't have the kind of backing others do.

*Speaking of Briscoe. His handlers told Roger Penske they had options for a full-season ride while Penske could only offer a part-time gig, but it seems with Jakes signing with RLL the giant sucking sound you are hearing is his full-time prospects going down the drain.

Then again, if you think back two years ago, Tony Kanaan was in the same type of situation and got a deal done with KV just about three weeks before St. Pete. So it's been done. It's a pretty safe bet that Briscoe will find some seat time this year, and even money that he will be in a car at Indy. Actually, given the situation, that could be a good gig for him, because there will be some one-offs with some good oval-heavy teams.

*While lots of speculation is out there about teams like Dragon looking to fill another seat. The only lock-down seat left appears to be with Dale Coyne. Justin Wilson tweeted "making progress" Thursday night, so it makes you wonder if that's where he's heading. That team made a lot of headway last year, especially in their oval program, so I don't see that combination being broken up.

*But then, just as everything was beginning to make sense. We find out that AJ Allmendinger will be testing for Penske Feb. 19 at Sebring. Wow. Apparently, this is a serious thing as Tim Cindric said the only way they were doing this is if Dinger committed to it. Now, he does have a few Cup races lined up, but should the test go well he may run Barber and Long Beach before taking on Indy.

It is probably really, really hard to turn down NASCAR money, because as hard as it is to believe it's probably more lucrative to drive around in circles and finish in 20th place than it is to run up front in IndyCar. Still, I hope this works out because this is where he should be.

Obviously he is very, very good in open wheel cars, as his five wins for Forsythe in 2006 proves. But along with that, he had nine additional podiums in just 40 races in 2004-06, and finished P6, P5 and P3 in points. You factor in his win at the 2012 Rolex 24 and it seems like this side of the fence is his best fit. I honestly believe that if he truly put his heart into this effort he could run up front fairly quickly.

Then again, I said the same thing about Rubens Barrichello about this time a year ago, and where did that get me?

Still, according to the website, he has earned his team something like $25 million in his various NASCAR series careers. And while he gets maybe a quarter of that (or thereabouts), it's still more than what he would have made in that same time frame in IndyCar.

So however long he lasts here, I'm guessing that he will make an impact, and it will be a good thing to have another talented driver fighting it out in the series.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Another Ride Domino Falls

Ever since Tristan Vautier put on an impressive display of driving during a test at Sebring in December, the 23-year-old Frenchman's name had been added to the list of drivers who were in the mix for one of the several open seats that were left for 2013.

Vautier grabbed one of those seats earlier this week when he was chosen by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to drive the team's second car as a compliment to fellow countryman Simon Pagenaud. He also brings $1 million in Road to Indy scholarship money with him as the 2012 Indy Lights champion.

He has been nothing but impressive since coming to the United States in 2010 to drive in the Star Mazda Series, posting 10 wins and 16 podiums to go along with two championships (he was the Star Mazda champ in 2011), and his pairing with Pagenaud should be a comfortable one that benefits both drivers.

In Pagenaud, Vautier gets a talented, experienced driver who can help him through the learning curve after going through it himself last year as he finished fifth in points and earned the 2012 IndyCar Sunoco Rookie of the Year. Pagenaud, the only single-car team driver in the top 10 in the points in 2012, gets a teammate that can give him valuable information that may not have been available last year.

I like the move because it shows that the ladder program works. A majority of drivers now in IndyCar competed in one of the ladder series at one time or another, and hopefully IndyCar keeps the ladder and scholarship programs going, because if you want to see American drivers in the series, this is how it's going to happen.

JR Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden are two Americans who came up through Indy Lights (Newgarden is also a scholarship recipient), and Zach Veach and Conor Daly could both only be a couple of years away (although Daly has taken a detour through Europe). I hope the people who plan on following the series "when there are more Americans to root for" are paying attention so they can jump on the bandwagon sometime down the road.

Please...if that is the only thing keeping someone from following IndyCar, I feel bad for them because they are so short-sided, and if they are, TFB, because they are missing some good stuff on the racetrack.

What I also like is that Vautier has earned this, from every level at which he has competed. One of the things I hear talked about a lot is that Vautier doesn't have a lot of money or someone backing him, he's had to dig and work hard for his rides, and that is admirable. Not only that, it's also the fact that he is doing this mostly on his talent.

So that drops one more domino, and makes you wonder where Ryan Briscoe is ending up. The clock is now ticking on Ryan, and you have to really shake your head and wonder how a driver with his credentials is not in a car somewhere. It sure is the new normal, isn't it?

OK, if you want to argue that he has had the best of the best, I'll give you that. But there are several drivers who Roger Penske has employed over the years that haven't got it done with the same advantages, and there have been drivers with other teams, such as Andretti Autosport, that couldn't get their car to the front despite being with an elite team.
You still have to drive the car and compete, and more often than not Briscoe gets cars to the front. He has won eight times, has been on the podium 27 total times and has been in the Top 10 in more than half his career starts. Why wouldn't you want him driving your car?

I get the economics of it, but still, it's unfortunate to see it happening, just like it was with Dan Wheldon a couple of years back. The guy deserves better.

(Note: I'm sure within a couple of hours of writing this, Marshall Pruett will come up with some awesome story to confirm something for Briscoe this year. It usually happens, but I'm not mad.)