Saturday, February 6, 2021

Starting Over

 For a lot of people, starting over is a scary idea.

Starting over means giving up what is comfortable, or what is known -- which is comforting, I guess -- and jumping feet first into what isn't.

I've done it a couple of times, and yes, it's scary. I started over 12 1/2 years ago when I got divorced, and it was an experience I would never want to go through again. But at the same time, here I am, all of these years later, in a better situation, older, and lots more wiser. 

I'm actually in the middle of starting over in a different way. Back in August, 2016, I left my crappy IT job to make a go of it in the IndyCar world. While that didn't work out (or hasn't so far), it did lead me to go back to school. I'm in my fourth semester at Northern Illinois University and will be graduating in May. I hope to eventually work in sports somewhere, and next month I begin an internship with the Joliet Slammers, a baseball team that plays in the Frontier League. Having covered minor league baseball for so many years, the idea of spending another summer at a ballpark every day has me pretty excited.

I'm also starting over in another way, and for those of you who know me personally or who have followed me over the last decade, it might be a bit of a surprise.

I'm starting over as an IndyCar fan. Emphasis on fan.

You may be saying, what? But it's true. Here's the story:

Since I left my crappy IT career to work in IndyCar, I've been all about working in IndyCar. With the full support of my wife, I was ready to go all-in. I was willing to do whatever I was asked to do and move wherever they wanted me to move. All of my chips were moved to the middle of the table.

I was blogging, I was podcasting, I was part of another podcast...I was doing everything I could to get noticed. In 2019, I spent thousands of dollars and drove and flew thousands of miles to cover 12 IndyCar races, and left that experience feeling empty and unappreciated.

Very, very unappreciated.

Last year, with no races to travel to, I kept it up, blogging and podcasting. But all of it was getting less and less fun, because it seemed like the more I put into it the less I got out of it.

Editor's note: With that said, Eric Hall is the best podcasting partner ever. I really enjoyed our conversations every Tuesday or Wednesday night, and if you are looking for a very smart IndyCar fan, Eric is your guy. I'm glad it looks like we will be working again this year. More on that later.

I know some of you read those last few paragraphs and were rolling your eyes. Yeah, Mike, it had to absolutely suck to be able to go to all of those races. Must be nice!

I get it. It was a privilege to be able to do that, and it was a lot of fun...up until the end when I came to the realization that I was an employee and not a partner. That was no bueno. 

The think I learned about trying to break into IndyCar. It's hard, damn hard. So, I'm taking a different approach, getting my degree and putting in an internship. If that's not enough, cool, I'll just work somewhere else. No hard feelings, because it should be hard. It's still my dream to work in IndyCar, but it's not my life's focus anymore, either.

So anyway, by the end of last year, I'd grown sick of a lot of it, so I went full on nuclear: I blew away my Twitter account and unfollowed/unfriended pretty much everyone racing-related on my social platforms.

I was done with IndyCar.

Or so I thought, because last weekend's Rolex 24 brought me back to life. I watched most of the coverage and loved it. The 24 represents everything I love about auto racing, and I'm looking forward to going back next year. 

As I watched the coverage, I decided to reinvent myself as an IndyCar fan. And just a fan.

Over the last couple of years, everything I did when it came to IndyCar was about working in IndyCar. My blog posts, my podcasts, my social media posts, all of it was with that in mind. It was all in hope someone noticed, and all done with getting into IndyCar in mind.

So, in short, I had -- at least in my mind -- stopped being a fan and was a media member (and kind of a jerk at that) and wannabe IndyCar personality.

I just want to be a fan again (although media center access every so often wouldn't be off the table!), and look at IndyCar through that lens. Because man, I freaking love IndyCar. Along with being a runner, a writer, and a Cubs fan, that's what people associate me with. 

I know I don't have to make this announcement, but I also know that most of the people who read this will understand. I'll still put stuff on social, blog and podcast, but the difference is that I'll be doing all of this for me, as a fan trying to connect to other fans, which is a good thing. I'm not chasing anything, or anyone for that matter, so it's back to being what got me into this sport in the first place.

I'm an IndyCar fan. Is it May yet?


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Rosenqvist, Ericsson Ready to Begin Sophomore Seasons

Separated by a couple of years in age and with different career arcs, Swedish drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist didn’t have a lot of interaction on the track while they were building their careers in the European junior ranks.

That changed last year when both entered the IndyCar series for their rookie campaigns in 2019, and now has moved to another level as they are now teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing.

With their rookie seasons now behind them, they are both looking to make an impact with CGR as the season opens Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

For Rosenqvist, all 2019 was missing was a victory, as he won the pole at the Indy GP, picked up two podiums, including one at Mid-Ohio where he was a pass away from now-teammate Scott Dixon from winning, and finished sixth in points. He also finished five points ahead of Colton Herta to capture the series’ Rookie of the Year title.

Rosenqvist has spent his entire career trotting the globe and driving anything that has wheels, so he was well-known among most IndyCar fans, especially given his stint driving Indy Lights in 2013. If he had one Achilles heel last season it was on ovals, where he had an average finish of P17.

Some of that wasn’t his fault, having been caught up in accidents both at the Indy 500 and Pocono, but the truth is even when he did finish races, his best effort was a P11 at Gateway.

Ovals are definitely a point of emphasis for him this season.

“I think going to Texas is going to be cool because my biggest improving thing from last year is definitely ovals,” Rosenqvist told the media during an IndyCar Zoom call. “That’s been a thing I’ve been thinking mostly about during the off-season. I think I have more to gain than anything else.

“Starting off in Texas, it’s going to be a nice feeling to see how much of that work has paid off, where we sort of stand compared to the others, especially on the ovals and superspeedways straight off the bat in the beginning of the year. Yeah, it’s going to be fun.”

Ericcson’s 2019 season was a little less successful as he was making the switch to IndyCar after making a total of 97 starts in Formula 1. Driving for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, he managed a podium at Detroit 2, but his only other Top 10 finishes came in the form of P7 results at Barber and Texas. He missed the race at Portland due to one final Formula 1 reserve driver commitment and finished 17th in the final standings.

“For me everything was new last year,” Ericsson said. “It was a complete new series. All the tracks were new, the cars, everything. It was a very steep learning curve for me. I felt throughout the year I was progressing, sort of getting into it more and more.

“I think one of the biggest things that I found with IndyCar is just the way you have to be complete as a driver because we go to so many different types of tracks. It’s everything from short ovals to superspeedways to street tracks to sweeping road courses. You need to be a complete driver to be competitive in this series.

“The competition in this series is extremely high, one small mistake and you’re down towards the bottom of the field. You need to get everything right, get the car set up well, then really maximize in qualifying and the race.”

Changing teams has been a new challenge, but he’s tried to use the longer break to get more familiar with life at CGR and getting up to speed with one of the most successful teams in IndyCar history.

“It’s been a long and strange off-season already, a long off-season in IndyCar,” Ericsson said. We were ready in St. Pete, but it was called off in the last minute, (after that) it’s about preparing yourself even more.

“I feel happy and confident in myself that I’ve done everything to be prepared as possible to start the season now. I feel really good with the team and I think we’ve done all the preparations possible. We are more than ready to start the season.”

Both drivers were very active on iRacing during the spring, participating in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. Ericcson nearly won at the final race at Indianapolis, using a courageous move down the backstretch and into Turn 3 to move into the point, only to be wrecked by Pato O’Ward one corner later.

The experience wasn’t for naught, though, as it gave Ericsson even more of an opportunity to work with the people who will be up on the box for him this season.

“It’s been really good this extra time,” Ericsson said, “especially the iRacing Series has been great for me to get that relationship started with my engineer, Brad Goldberg and my spotter Bruce (Kempton). We’ve already started working in a racing environment. It feels like we definitely have started that process so we can continue that now when we get to the racetrack for real. That’s been really good and really useful.”

Before any season begins, there is plenty of optimism, of course, but there is also plenty of excitement. The IndyCar season finished last September and last hosted an oval race at Gateway back in August, so just getting back in a car in anger is a welcome sight for both drivers. The one-day show will be a bit of a challenge for everyone involved, but both feel up to it.

“I’ve heard a question, How do you prepare for only one day?” Rosenqvist said. “I think it’s mostly mentally, you just have to set your mind up that it’s going to be a long day. You’re going to be almost a different person at the end of the day compared to the beginning.

“But it’s pretty cool. You put us in a tough situation, I think that’s what people want to see as well. People watching on TV, they want to see us do something difficult, see a good race. That’s what they’re going to get I’m pretty sure.”

Ericsson agreed.

“Yeah, I feel it’s fine,” he said. “When race time comes, I think everyone will be up to speed. Obviously the race is going to be tough with quite warm temperatures, the track already being a physical track. It’s going to be a tough one for sure, but everybody is in the same situation.

“Personally I’ve been working really, really hard this off-season to prepare myself. I feel really strong and ready both in my body and mind. I’m ready to take on a tough day of driving. Can’t wait to go there and do it.”

The Rumble Strip podcast

Felix Rosenqvist will be my guest on this Friday’s show, but before you listen to that one, check out my other episodes where I talk IndyCar racing with Conor Daly and Charlie Kimball, and catch up with FR Americas champion Dakota Dickerson. You can listen here on iTunes.

Photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Monday, December 9, 2019

Daly, ECR Join Forces for 2020

A year ago, Conor Daly's IndyCar career was at a crossroads.

After having a full-time ride with Dale Coyne Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing in 2016 and 2017, respectively, Daly was only able to run four races in 2018 and things looked bleak for the 2019 season.

Daly eventually got a ride for the Indy 500 for Andretti Autosport. Back in May I felt this race was a make-or-break moment for his career, and Daly delivered. He was impressive all week in practice, qualified 11th and came home in 10th place for the best finish of his career.

There was certainly a different edge to him that month, as he was about as laser-focused as we have seen him. He was able to run six of the last nine races of the year, and performed well on the ovals while with Carlin, finishing P11 at Texas, P13 at Iowa and P6 at Gateway.

That effort definitely made him a free agent of note, and his plans for 2020 were cast in stone Monday when he was named the "road course" driver of the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy. That means he will drive all 12 road courses for ECR next year, and then will also have a ride for the Indy 500. His sponsorship will come from the United States Air Force, which was on his car at Indy, as well as at the season finale at Laguna Seca where he drove for Andretti Autosport.

Daly jumps into the seat that belonged to Ed Jones in 2019. Jones, who posted three podium finishes in 2017-18 with Chip Ganassi Racing, could only manage a season-best finish of P6 at the Indy GP, which was his only Top 10 finish of the season. Daly is the second new face at ECR for 2020, joining rookie Rinus VeeKay, who this past year won seven races and finished second in the Indy Lights standings.

In both seats, I think ECR made serious upgrades, but none more so than with Daly. For his career, Daly has run 51 IndyCar races, 34 of which have come on road courses, where he has nine Top 10 finishes. Given he hasn't always had quality rides, that is more of an impressive stat than it might look at first glance.

Then comes the Indy 500. Daly will be the No. 2 man on a team that focuses a lot of energy to that one race. ECR always finds lots of speed at the Brickyard, as Ed Carpenter has sat on the pole three times and the team has put a driver on the front row six of the last seven years. 

This past May, Carpenter, Pigot and Jones started P2, P3 and P4, respectively, with Carpenter leading seven laps and coming home sixth. As good as Daly showed he could be at Indy this year, he could be even better in an ECR machine, especially with Chevy power, which this year was the better motor at the 500. 

Though Daly isn't entered in the other four ovals -- those are Carpenter's drives -- it wouldn't surprise me to see something get worked out for him to appear in one or two, if not all four races. If he does run the full 17-race schedule, I think he will easily establish a career-best in the championship standings.

2020 Start Times Released

It's always good to have the schedule set in stone for the next season in December, which hasn't always been the case in the past. While the dates for the 2020 season were announced back in September, the times were still being worked on. 

The start times next year should satisfy everyone. Iowa is back to being an "official" night race after having a 6 p.m. local time start this year. Of course, weather pushed the start of the race very deep into the night, but this year's 8 p.m. start makes it a full "after dark" event. In fact, all of the ovals except for the Indianapolis 500 are true night events, with all of them going off after 7:30 p.m. local time.

It seems like IndyCar responded to fan feedback on the Mid-Ohio race, which will start at 12:45 p.m. The Mid-Ohio race is heavily attended by fans from Indiana, who had a tough time getting home and getting ready for the start of the week when the race started later in the afternoon. Road America, which is much in the same situation, has a 12:50 p.m. green flag.

Eight of the 17 races will be on network television next year, including the final two races of the season at Portland and Laguna Seca. 

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Best of the 2019 IndyCar Season

Photo credit: Chris Owens/IndyCar Media

Last Friday, I wrote about some of the bigger stories of the year in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2019, and today I'm going to focus on what happened on the track this past season.

As I've done several times in the past, I'm going to highlight some of the drivers and performances that we saw this past year, sort of an awards show, if you will. We definitely have plenty to work with this year, so let's get started.

Driver of the Year: Josef Newgarden. In the past, I haven't necessarily given this award to the driver who won the championship, but this year Newgarden is a worthy recipient. Newgarden started off the year with a win at St. Pete, then finished on the podium in three of the first four races. He later added three more wins (Detroit 1, Texas and Iowa) and did what he needed to do over the final few races to keep himself on top of the points standings. With only three finishes outside of the Top 10 all year, Newgarden did exactly what you need to do to win an IndyCar title: win a lot, and when you don't win, finish near the front.

Drive of the Year: Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud. With the rules the way they are and competition at the level it is, it's certainly hard to dominate a race, but that happened three times this year. Rossi won the pole at both Long Beach and Road America, and ran away with both races, winning by 20 and 28 seconds, respectively. Pagenaud, meanwhile, dominated the entire weekend in Toronto, running quickest in the practice sessions, winning the pole and running away with the race win.

Race of the Year: Indianapolis 500. Come on, do you really think it would be anything else? Twenty-nine lead changes among nine drivers, 300,000-plus fans, the prediction of rain that eventually didn't happen. It was the greatest race on the planet in 2019, and if you think I'm wrong, prove it. In the end, Pagenaud made a pass in Turn 3 of the penultimate lap, and went on to his first win while sweeping the Month of May.

Let's relive it, shall we?

Coolest Race of the Year: Iowa. OK, there was nothing super spectacular on paper about this race. Newgarden led 245 of the 300 laps to win his fourth and final race of the year. But still, it may have been the coolest race I've ever watched. Rain and lightning meant the race didn't start until almost midnight, then experienced another red flag for rain. By the time the race ended it was almost 2 a.m. local time. Being there, it was so cool to experience something like that, and in the end, this race belonged to the fans that stayed with it until the end. 

Rookie of the Year: Colton Herta. With all due respect to the official ROY, Felix Rosenqvist, Herta was the best of a very solid rookie class that included Rosenqvist, Santino Ferrucci and Marcus Ericcson. Herta, at 18 years and 259 days, became the youngest winner in IndyCar history when he took the checkered flag at Circuit of the Americas, then bookended that with a win at Laguna Seca to finish off the year. He eventually captured two wins and three poles on the year and, with his move to Andretti Autosport for 2020, showed he was one of the rising stars in the series for next year and beyond.

Comeback Driver of the Year: Simon Pagenaud. After winning the IndyCar championship in 2016, Pagenaud went through a sort of "slump", winning just two races combined in 2017-18. By the time the circus reached Long Beach in April, many were speculating that Pagenaud was in his final season as a part of Team Penske. Those people hadn't been paying attention, though, because Pagenaud was racing as hard as he ever had in his career, he just didn't have the results to show for it. Confidently defiant, Pagenaud took on Scott Dixon in the rain at the Indy GP in early May, and came away with the win with a late-race pass, then won the pole and the race at the Indianapolis 500. From his win at Toronto until the end of the season, Pagenaud never finished worse than P7 and finished the season just 25 points back of Newgarden for the series championship.

The start of the 2020 season is still a long way off, but we're getting closer. It's been 10 weeks since the season finished, and we have 15 weeks to go until St. Pete. Hopefully next season will be just as exciting, both on and off the track, as 2019 was.

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Biggest Stories in IndyCar

Photo credit: Arrow McLaren SP

It looks like we have reached that point in the year where it's time to start taking a look back. Over the next few week's we will all see more than our share of "Best of 2019" lists, and I actually have two "Best of" lists that I would like to share.

When the IndyCar season started, it really seemed like off-track news would be kind of quiet. After all, only one big-name driver was potentially going on the free agent market, the IndyCar season as a whole is as stable as it's been in a long time, so it appeared the biggest news would be what happened on the track as the field competed for the 2019 championship.

Man, we were wrong, weren't we? All of that did happen, but so did a lot more. Here are six of the biggest stories in IndyCar this year.

1) Roger Penske's purchase of, well, everything. The biggest bomb of the 2019 season dropped well after it was over, as on Nov. 4 it was announced that Roger Penske had made an agreement to buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series, and IMS Productions. As if winning the Indy 500 and the championship wasn't enough, Penske just bought up everything else and took it home too. Seriously, though, this is a great more that will resonate positively in the sport for years to come. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Penske and the IndyCar team has in store for 2020.

2) Silly season got out of hand. It was kind of understood that a little havoc would happen had Alexander Rossi decided to move on from Andretti Autosport to another team. While most of us expected him to stay (spoiler alert: he did), nobody could see what was coming in the aftermath. One team and driver (Colton Herta and Harding Steinbrenner Racing) merged with another (Andretti Autosport), another team joined the grid in Arrow McLaren SP,  leaving an established driver in James Hinchcliffe on the outside looking in, and in the latest stunning move, Sebastien Bourdais began his Thanksgiving week by discovering he didn't have a ride next year. I could go on, but you get the drift.

3) McLaren joins IndyCar. The rumblings had been going on since Fernando Alonso competed in the 2017 Indy 500, and Zak Brown said as far back as Long Beach that joining IndyCar was what the McLaren shareholders wanted. The hangup was McLaren was looking to form a partnership with an existing team, but they finally found a willing party in Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing, forming Arrow McLaren SP. Needless to say, it's been a rough season for the group both on and off the track, but 2020 is a new day, and I think this team will be ready from the jump. Because lost in a lot of other news is the fact that they have a young driver in Pato O'Ward who's already gotten his feet wet in IndyCar, and another in Oliver Askew, who won 16 races and two championships in three years while climbing up the Road to Indy ladder. You can't go wrong building a team around these two young talents.

4) Speaking of young. The series welcomed one of the more highly-touted rookie classes in recent memory this year, and they didn't disappoint. Colton Herta won two races and three poles in his age 19 season, and next year will be competing under the Andretti Autosport banner. Santino Ferrucci, just 21, won the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award and had a chance to win at Gateway before a late caution came. He was also incredibly consistent, completing all but one lap through the season's first 15 races, and finished with three Top 5 and seven total Top 10 finishes. While a bit older and more experienced, Felix Rosenqvist finished sixth in points and showed why Chip Ganassi took a chance on him. With many of the top drivers in the series looking at finishing up their careers in the next five years or so, it's important that the next crop of drivers is ready to be next. So far it's looking good.

5) The championship fight. I'll throw an editor's note in here that these aren't in order, except for the first one of course, which sits next to the series reuniting in 2008 as the top stories of the millennium. Anyway, as always, the championship battle went right down to the final laps of the year, with Joseph Newgarden picking up his second series title in four years. Still, there were storylines all over the place: with Newgarden and Rossi going nose-to-nose all summer, Simon Pagenaud barging his way back into the discussion by sweeping the Month of May and dominating the weekend at Toronto, while past champions Scott Dixon and Will Power battled through all sorts of adversity all season long to stay in it for as long as they could.

6) The aeroscreen becomes a reality. For all of the safety innovations that we have seen in racing over the years, there was still one area in an open wheel car where a driver was vulnerable: their head. We got a grim reminder of that with the death of Justin Wilson at Pocono in 2015, and over the last couple of years Formula 1 and other FIA series have adopted the halo device, which has already proven itself on more than one occasion. IndyCar decided to go with an aeroscreen setup, and it has been in heavy testing since late summer. So far it seems to be getting solid reviews from the drivers and the potential issues or fears many had about it seems to have been alleviated. It looks good to go for the 2020 season, and while it may take a while to get used to, I think it will be a beneficial piece of safety for the drivers.

It was a fun summer, and I'm glad that I joined the circus this year and was able to cover 12 of the races. Look for my annual "Best of" awards post Monday.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A Review of Ford V. Ferrari

I remember seeing the trailer for Ford v. Ferrari back over the summer and my first thought was: "please don't let this movie suck".

It showed so much promise in the early trailers. It had a great story, which was also documented in the film The 24-Hour War, great actors, and, well, race cars. Not just any race cars, mind you, but cars made and raced in the 1960s, which was one of the sexiest decades for racing in history.

Thankfully, it didn't suck. As a matter of fact, I loved it.

The movie struck the perfect balance of storytelling and racing, which is so hard to do in sports films. While the movie was long at 2 1/2 hours, I didn't feel like it ever really dragged, and the length gave it enough time so that nothing really felt rushed.

In doing some research for this post, I've discovered that the writers went a bit fast and loose with some of the facts and the history, but that's what happens when real life becomes reel life. Some of the characters in the film were depicted in a way that they were not in reality. That happens far too often in a lot of movies that are based on real-life events, which is unfortunate.

The other disappointing part of the movie was many of the racing scenes. They just didn't look realistic enough on par with three of my favorite racing movies: Grand Prix, Rush and LeMans. You could tell too much of it was green screened, and if you looked closely at the 24 Hours of Daytona scene you can tell that it was done at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. I wish they had done a better job with the racing scenes, because that would have brought the movie to the next level.

Still, the reason I liked the film is because it was about my favorite part of racing: the people. I attended 12 IndyCar races this past season and while the action on-track was amazing, of course, what I found more and more fascinating with each passing week was the people within the sport.

As we all know, it takes a village of people to put a car on track, and while the driver is the QB1 of any team, they are nothing without the people that support them. So many times I'd walk up and down pit road and just watch people as they went about their jobs.

During a typical 3-day race weekend, the cars on only on track for a few hours, the rest of the time is spent, as Steve McQueen once said...waiting. But it was so fascinating for me to watch as a collective group of people put everything they had into what they did for one person. You win as a team and lose as one, I get that, but the passion people brought to their jobs, and the friendships and bonds that were formed as a result, are a story just as compelling as the story that unfolds on the track.

I love the racing, but I love the process too. I love being at testing or practice, and I love the downtime in between. That's when the real story gets told.

If you are part of a team, you care about each other and you count on each other, and a true team is when success and failure belongs to everyone.

Plenty of people who have been in this sport a long time have told me at the end of the day the thing they remember most looking back at their time spent in racing was the camaraderie and being part of something.

I enjoyed the relationship between Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, who, by the way, will be up for another Oscar for this one). I enjoyed many of the scenes of the guys just being at the shop, working and testing, working and testing, to make their car go faster. That's the part of racing that I can truly relate to because I've been a part of that.

If you go into this movie as a hard-core race fan, you may leave disappointed. It's a movie made for general consumption that has less of the "gearhead" factor of 24 Hour War.

Which is OK for me, because it tells a great story. If you haven't seen it yet, definitely carve some time out of your Thanksgiving weekend to do so, and if you have, go see it again, which I probably will do too.

Is it the greatest racing movie ever made? Sadly, no, but it's still a really fun time.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

An IndyCar Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! Since it's still the weekend that's appropriate, isn't it? If you celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you had the greatest of times with friends, family, football...and shopping. If not, I hope you had a great weekend.

Another weekend down, another step closer to St. Pete!

Of course, part of Thanksgiving is taking time to think about your blessings and things that make you feel thankful. I'm thankful for lots of things: a great wife and my blended family of four sons, my home, my health and the good health of my family, and my new dog, Boomer.

He is a rescue that we adopted three weeks ago. I've always been a cat person, but my brother has two dogs and I have become more and more attached to them every time I have gone to Atlanta for a visit.

I'd been thinking about getting a dog for a while but my wife and I had reservations. But, we finally took the plunge.

Worth it!

Boom is the first dog I've had since a family pet in high school, so we've had some challenges so far, but I am thankful he is part of our family.

Oh yeah, I know that it goes without saying, I am extremely thankful for racing!

I love racing, and I have for 40 years. Like any relationship, it's had ebbs and flows, but like baseball, it's just something in my blood.

So what are a few racing things I'm thankful for? Let me count the ways.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway/Indianapolis 500. For me, IMS is where it all began back in 1979, and I can honestly say there are very few days in my life since that I haven't thought about IMS or the 500. I lived in Indy from 1989-94 -- including a year just down the street from the track -- and I'll always have a few regrets about that. When Steve McQueen talked about racing being life and the rest was spent waiting, he was talking about how I feel about the Month of May. Waiting. Like many of you, Race Day is my Christmas, there isn't a better day of the year for me, especially every few years when the race falls on my birthday. My experience working with John Cummiskey Racing and Lazier Racing Partners the last couple of years showed me an IMS I hadn't experienced before, and allowed me to take a picture that makes me smile every time I see it. I hope to have the chance to take another one someday!

This year was my 20th 500, and has become a family tradition with my kids too. I look forward to someday adding grandkids to that too -- but not too soon! Family is what the 500 is all about, isn't it?

People who care. If you go back to the beginnings of this blog, you'd find several posts that were critical of IndyCar, team owners, and even sometimes IMS management too. I think if you look at the last 25 years of the sport, lots of that criticism has been valid. "How did we get here?" is definitely a question people who have followed the sport since the days when it featured full houses, massive sponsorship dollars and the stars of racing.

I'm thankful for the fact that right now the sport of IndyCar is in great hands. The arrival of people like Mark Miles and Jay Frye have been a huge boost to the sport. Finally we have people in charge who have a true vision of how this sport should grow, and they have assembled a core group of track owners who want their races to succeed.

Then on the IMS side, of course, is Doug Boles. In the five years Mr. Boles has been in charge he has played a huge part in once again turning the Indy 500 into the biggest motor race in the world. The secret of his success is that he loves the 500 as much -- if not more -- than the fans do, and he is a great steward for both the track and the race.

Racing friends. One of the hard parts about growing up in Central Illinois in the 1980s is that I didn't know anyone else like me. Most of my friends made fun of my love of racing, one of them came around about 15 years later, but the only person I knew who even had a passing interest in racing was my friend Tonya, who I should've girlfriended up as fast as possible based on that alone. I did take her to the prom -- shoulda tried harder.

Tangent over! Ever since I launched this blog in late 2010 and became active on social media, I've connected with people all over the world and have been able to talk about and share my fandom for IndyCar racing. Then in 2012 I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in the Social Media Garage during qualifying weekend. It was so cool to finally meet people in person and talk racing.

I could go on and on listing the names of people I've met in the name of racing, but you know who you are, and I'm thankful for you.

I'll also give a special thanks to my best racing friend, my wife Darcy. While she doesn't know a lot about racing and isn't much more than a casual fan, she has gone to races with me, knows what it's all about, and most of all gets why I love it so much. One of Darcy's gifts is that she gets me in a lot of areas in my life, and she is totally supportive of my quest to somehow work in racing. I hope that it all comes together someday so I can repay her faith in me.

The IndyCar drivers. I think everyone who reads this has had several positive experiences with an IndyCar driver or two. That's one of the greatest things about this sport, we are allowed to get up close with the teams and drivers.

The beauty? All you need is a ticket. You buy a ticket, you get to meet a driver if you want to -- it's that simple! Indy is a different animal, but at any other stop on the series, if you want a photo or a chance to chat with an IndyCar driver, you can get one if you want to.

I don't throw a lot of shade at NASCAR, because honestly I spend very little time thinking about them. But when you see a picture at the track of people with drivers, don't forget that chances are they bought a ticket and paid extra for the access, or had a friend of a friend that got them that close to their favorite driver.

IndyCar drivers are available at the track, they are always out and about in Indianapolis, almost all of them are accommodating with the media, bloggers, and podcasters, and will do anything in their power to grow the sport. We can't ask for anything better.

I know a lot of people who would love to see the sport just explode into the mainstream. I don't. While I'm happy with the slow, steady growth we have seen the last few years, I don't ever want to see the days where drivers are secluded and unavailable to the fans. As long as IndyCar is profitable and healthy, I'm happy, just don't grow too big that the fans just become people who buy tickets. The fans and the close relationships they have with their favorite driver is the fabric of the sport.

Robert Wickens. I'm breaking Robbie out of the previous point because over the course of the last few months he has proven to everyone that he is just one special freaking person.

I saw Wickens' accident at Pocono live on television, and I'm OK with the idea of never seeing it again. While I appreciated all of the transparency that he provided us over the last few weeks, it really wasn't until he posted the word "paraplegic" in one of his Instagram videos that it hit home how badly he was injured.

But despite all he has been through, Robbie has shown nothing but a positive attitude and a determination that is no doubt inspiring to many. What I love about his videos is that he's always smiling and showing a positive attitude, no matter the situation.

Robbie is a helluva race car driver, and he more than proved that this season. He's also an incredible man who looks like he will dig as deep as possible to make the most of his situation. I hope he walks again, and in fact, I think he will. When I broke my humerus three years ago I dealt with nerve damage that left me with a drop wrist. I couldn't lift my left hand for seven months, and then I woke up one day and I could. The improvement was about a centimeter at a time, and it was almost a year before my wrist and hand started working like it used to.

This kind of stuff just takes time, and there are certain people in this world who can will themselves to almost anything.

I truly believe that Robbie Wickens is one of those people. I can't say if he will ever drive a race car again, but he will find a way to get 100 percent out of what he's given. I try to think about him a lot, as his story inspires me in my daily life.

So Robert, thanks for making a difference in my life, and that of lots of other people.

I could keep going on all of the things are thankful for, but what are a few of yours? I'd love to hear them!