Thursday, May 15, 2014

Getting Close to Go Time

So yesterday (Wednesday) I had started this post with the idea that track activity would be cancelled due to inclement weather. Just when I was ready to hit "publish" I see Tweets that cars were being towed to the pits for a quick practice session.

Darn it! You know what? Since I had taken the time to write, I'm plowing forward, because it's May and we have plenty to talk about!

For disclosure, it's now Thursday night and we are all set and ready for Fast Friday and Time Trials, which we could also refer to as "Crank It Up Weekend". Yes, I just invented that. But it fits, doesn't it? With the motors boosted up and the pressure on the drivers reaching a fever pitch, things start to get serious in the next 72 hours.

So let's discuss, shall we?

*The weather: Let's go with that first. With rain and cold weather dominating the week it left the window for getting things done got a bit compressed. Now that we are in the middle of the week, though, we can get a better gauge of what to expect with the weather for qualifying this weekend. When IMS/IndyCar came up with the new procedures, one of the potential problems that arose was the threat of rain. That's a concern because I've been around long enough to see entire weekends washed out (thankfully not since we went to one-weekend qualifying), and that would seriously complicate things, not to mention send the fanbase into a frenzy. (Come on, you know it would) Looking at the extended forecast through the weekend, it looks pretty good, at least on Sunday. Hopefully they get everything in as scheduled.

*Speeds: It's what we all come for, right? Despite the less-than-stellar conditions, speeds have been gradually climbing all week, with Helio Castroneves leading the way today at just over 227 mph. Ed Carpenter made his way out of the woodwork to post his best time of the month at 226.2, with Will Power, Townsend Bell(!) and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounding out the Top 5.

Practice has been highly entertaining all week as the guys have been going at it pretty hard, as has been the trend all three years of the existence of the DW12. The only downside to the fun is that most speeds are inflated within the tow and it's difficult to know who has what to qualify. Then again, is that such a bad thing?

Plus, with the weather all of the teams are working on different schedules, from race setup to qualifying trim, so it's really going to be hard to know until everyone tilts their rear wings back to minus-10 on Saturday. I would really like to see one (or more) of the drivers break 230 in qualifying. No real reason, since I'm not as obsessed with the speed as I used to be, but it's fun to see a "230" flash up on the board.

Speaking of barriers, it was 49 years ago today that Jim Clark became the first driver to crack 160 mph in qualifying, and it is 42 years (plus one day) that cars at the Speedway broke the 180 AND 190 mph barriers on the same day. Could you imagine what it was like to see Bill Vukovich come out and turn laps at 185 mph and then a while later Bobby Unser bust four of them at over 196? Wish I had been there that day.

And it's also 37 years (and a day) since Tom Sneva officially went 200 mph for the first time. He later became the first driver to go over 210 as well, making him the only driver to have two barrier-breakings to his credit.

Wow, sorry, didn't mean to go that far with that, but it was getting kind of fun. Personally, I have witnessed three: Sneva in 1983, Rick Mears (220) in 1988 and Roberto Guerrero (230) in 1992.

*Hinch. Great news to hear that James Hinchcliffe had been cleared to drive today after suffering a concussion in Saturday's GP when he was struck in the head by a piece of debris. It was a dicey few days for Hinch, because there were doubts he would be able to drive, either this weekend or even next week in the 500.

While that would've sucked I also commend IndyCar, and most professional sports, for having concussion protocols on the books that look out for the safety of the athlete. It also means I'm still alive with my prediction he's going to win the race.

In his absence, EJ Viso has been working with the car and had been racy all week before his Honda motor cooked this afternoon, leaving Hinch time to run an install lap before activity for the day ended. No big deal as I'm sure like many teams they were trying to get to their 2,500 mile limit to get fresh power for the weekend.

With Viso out of the car, it raised questions as to if Michael Andretti may field a sixth car for him. While unlikely it would be a good thing because you know what that would mean?


*Double Outlaw: I haven't watched a lot of practice, but from what I have seen Kurt Busch looks pretty comfortable. He was also 9th fastest on the speed chart today at 224.739. One thing I have noticed is that as the week's gone on there has been more and more talk about how he could fare on race day. I'm still sticking with my prediction of a Top 15, but others have gone on and said they see him finishing in the Top 5.

That would be a massive stretch, to say the least. I think Kurt is an elite-level driver, but he isn't an elite-level open wheel driver, and in this era those are two completely different things. A couple of Tweets I read invoked AJ Allmendinger, but I see him as an open wheel guy who chooses to drive stock cars. Dinger had 41 open wheel starts in CART/IndyCar before running the 500 last year, not to mention three years of open wheel ladder experience. Two different things.

It's just when I think about the last 50 miles, I just don't see him beating that many series regulars, not to mention guys like Ed Carpenter and Oriol Servia. Regardless of where Kurt finishes, I'll be standing and applauding for him because I respect his desire to put himself out there and race. In fact, the victory comes in completing 1,100 miles of racing in one day, which I think is 10 times harder to do now than it was the last time anyone attempted it.

*BEAST. The wait is over...Jade Gurss' book about the story around the Mercedes engine that was built specifically for -- and won -- the 1994 Indianapolis 500 finally arrived on my porch Tuesday. While I'm only about 100 pages in (they haven't even begun testing in the snow in Nazareth yet) it is every bit as advertised. Great stories and insight, and even taught me a few things I didn't know. One of those surrounds Mario Andretti's engine failure in the 1987 500, but you'll have to read the book to learn the rest.

What strikes me the most is just the time and effort (not to mention money) that went into a project that everyone knew the motor was either going to fail miserably or succeed at such a level it would probably never be allowed to race again. In the end, these people worked 70, 80 and 90 hours a week for one event, one race, one day.

What made it work is that the people involved gave everything of themselves to make it happen, and they seemed happy to do it because it was the project they had been waiting their whole lives to try. Legacy stuff...and not many of us get the opportunity to do something like that. They did, and seized it.

It's hard to comprehend all of the moving parts to getting it done, and by moving parts I mean people designed different components of the engine not knowing if it would be compatible with the components someone else was designing, most of which was done by hand. It was all done with a faith in their abilities (and each other) and a level of teamwork that is so rarely found in any team or organization. I can't wait to read the rest of the book.

OK, I'm publishing now. So if anything comes up in the next five minutes we can talk about it later!

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