Friday, December 31, 2010

Frenetic Friday -- Randy Bernard Edition

Probably the most significant move IndyCar made in 2010 was bringing on Randy Bernard as the CEO back in the spring. The success he had with building up the Professional Bull Riding series was impressive, but given the fact by his own admission he had never even seen a race prior to his hiring, it made people wonder if he would have the ability to figure everything out and start moving forward in the very short window that sat in front of him.

Fortunately he did, and the series heads into 2011 (and 2012) with the most positive momentum (drink, ye bastards) it’s had in, well, decades really.

I like a lot about Bernard, but here are a few things that really stood out to me this year and why he was such a good hire for the series:

He doesn’t claim to know all the answers. A mark of a good boss in any environment is someone who is willing to listen to others, gather information and make solid decisions. Bernard knows he isn’t a racing expert, his strength lies in his organizational skills and how he gets people on the same page and then takes it upon himself to make the final, informed decision.

He’s not an insider. That’s huge, because one of the problems with CART and the IRL is that they were both basically owned and run by the league’s influential car owners or the most influential family in the industry. That leads to decisions that serve your own best interests. You look at the 25/8 rule (of course), or engine leases, where Roger Penske leased out engines on behalf of a manufacturer and wouldn’t let teams tear down the motors. But of course his team could. I could go on and on, but what Bernard brings to the table is the fact his decisions are made for the best interest of the series and he doesn’t cave to the special interests of some. Hopefully that stays the case for a long time.

He understands the sport’s heritage and history. Deciding to combine all of the records from IndyCar, CART, IRL, AAA, etc. was a nod to the fact we have to honor and celebrate the numbers and records from the past. Open wheel racing is only rivaled by baseball in terms of longevity as a professional sport, and numbers are important to people. Records have always mattered at Indy, but to start combining stats such as wins, poles or national championships recognizes so many more great drivers than had been in the past, and people appreciate that.

Speed is important. Along with the IRL-CART split, I feel the decline of the Indy 500 can also be blamed on the rules that set speeds at their current level. While it was probably necessary for a time in terms of driver safety, the fans became bored with seeing the same 225 mph laps every year. Fans love innovation, speed and track records. The cars, motors and tires are so tuned that everything but race day is nothing more than a glorified testing session. Bernard recognizes this, and his mandate of setting a track record at Indy in 2011 or 2012 was met very positively.

And most of all…

It’s about the fans! In this area, Bernard more than gets it. He understands the element of the fan and our contribution to the sport. He’s taken steps to try and make the events more affordable and give the fans unprecedented access to the drivers and teams. He understands the importance of technology and social media, and a push has been made to utilize those mediums to the fullest. He also knows that there is a “lost generation” fanbase that needs to be introduced (or re-introduced) to the sport. I believe that this area is his biggest challenge and one that will be a high priority for Bernard in the future.

As race fans we have plenty to look forward to in 2011 and beyond. So in the spirit of the New Year, let’s raise our glasses to say goodbye to a great season, and toast what can be an even better one that lies ahead.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Passing on the Tradition

Speaking of Pole Day, this year represented the first time my 14 and 10-year-old boys had been to the Speedway. After enduring a 3-hour car ride from Chicago and sitting in the afternoon heat, the first question my little one asks when we got back to the car: "When do they have time trials again so we can go?" His brother then nodded. Hopefully I've started passing along my love for open wheel racing, and especially the 500, to my kids the way my Dad did to me!

My Top Moment of 2010

Despite the dominance of the red cars in 2010, I felt like there were actually a lot of great moments and some memorable highlights to the IndyCar season. But the one that sticks out in my mind is Helio Castroneves' performance during Pole Day at Indy.

Being there that day I think is what sets it apart for me. To be able to feel the temps (pushing 80) and how the sun was beating down on the track, and to see drivers struggle with the conditions and the tense looks form on their faces as the day went on, it was obvious that this was a tough day for everyone involved.

That's what makes what Helio did so epic, and put in two of the most impressive qualifying runs I have ever seen.

Helio waits for his ride!
Second to provisional pole sitter Alex Tagliani and the first-ever Shootout for the top nine qualifiers approaching, Team Penske pulled Catroneves' time -- which he set in cooler conditions right after the track opened at 11 a.m. -- and sent him back out to run again just before 2:45 p.m.

With the track probably at its absolute worst, Helio pumped out a first lap of 227.319 mph and finished with a four-lap average of 226.774 to jump ahead of Tagliani in the standings.

But he wasn't finished. Ninety minutes later he brought the place to its feet when he opened the shootout by turning his first two laps above 228, the two fastest laps of the entire month, before pushing his average to 227.970.

In the end the shootout became very interesting, with Will Power, Dario Fanchitti and Tagliani giving it good efforts. While Power eventually got within four-tenths of a second from bumping Castroneves out of the top spot, it came later in the session as the track got cooler and everyone's speeds began improving.

Helio's two runs, when they counted the most, came when the track was just dreadful. Some days the car does much of the work, and other days it's up to the driver. Pole Day was definitely one of the latter, and Castroneves was up to the task.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I'm All About High School Basketball This Week...

...but I couldn't go without a mention of the new Indy 500 commemorative stamp. Wow. This is really cool! I've always loved the Wasp and while I know it probably can't be done, I wish a team could paint up their car and run No. 32 this May. Consider it like a throwback jersey!

Monday, December 27, 2010


According to several sources (and I'll list one here) it was announced late last week that Simona DeSilvestro has secured a multi-year agreement with HVM Racing that includes the all-important full sponsorship.

"Yes, we’ve signed a multi-year agreement with a sponsor to secure Simona’s future," team owner Keith Wiggins told SpeedTV. “We’ll have an official announcement and press conference in January but that’s all we can say.”

He did reportedly add that the sponsor will be new to racing.

Good news on so many fronts (as you can tell by my headline I'm a Simona fan). I'm not the only one DeSilvestro won over in 2010, as she earned plenty of fans with her outgoing demeanor and respect among her fellow drivers for her performance on a one-car team that struggled with funding all year. At Indy she was a first-day qualifier who finished on the lead lap in 14th place and was named Rookie of the Year, led laps in Brazil and had a great weekend at Edmonton before being spun out mid-race.

A couple of places I've read states that this is a very underrated signing, and I agree. Simona represents the "new era" of driver that the series is looking for and needs to continue with the momentum it has begun building over the last few months.
Young (22), bright and very personable, not to mention extremely talented in the car, DeSilvestro is someone who can represent the sport well in front of sponsors, fans and media. Should her performance steadily improve in 2011, IndyCar would be smart to get her in front of people as often as they possibly can.

A great indication of that is to how well she handled with the car fire incident at Texas. That was a total failure and screw up of epic proportions, but the fact that she was able to handle it with such diplomacy goes a long way towards showing her savvy for knowing how to stand up in the public eye.

Behind the wheel, the fact she is a woman is a sidelight, it doesn't really matter. In relation to the public, I see her as a potential replacement for the retiring Sarah Fisher in terms of overall appeal.

DeSilvestro has that kind of personality and PR intelligence that true fans will be attracted to. Maybe not the fans who follow whichever driver the media tells them to, but sooner or later they will come around as well. 

It's good for the series to have women drivers. From a competition side it is a level playing field so it gives the opportunity for men and women to truly compete against each other, which is great to see. When I'm watching a race, it's just names and cars and numbers. Women can win races, and they already have. No other sport can say that, and that is what makes racing unique.

From a series standpoint, it offers crossover appeal which brings more people into the sport. IndyCar needs to put people in the seats, get them to buy merchandise and watch the broadcast on TV. The more broad the spectrum of drivers, the more potential there is to find fans.

I've read places where Simona is interested in driving F1, but unless he had some sense beaten into him (low blow, but come on, it set itself up and the guy is a chauvinistic ass!) it is very unlikely to happen in Bernie Ecclestone's lifetime -- and even beyond given the heavily political nature of that series. In the end their loss is IndyCar's gain, and I think she will be a force in American open wheel racing for some time to come.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Frenetic Friday -- I'll Play Along!

Great post on IndyCar Advocate today about three defining Indy 500 moments:

Like many, the Speedway is special to me...a living, breathing place that has been a part of my life since I was 10 years old. I have so many memories, of waking up on Pole Day and driving down from Peoria, IL, living just a mile from the track for a couple of years, so close that I could hear the roar of the cars and when teams tested in the spring I'd jump in my car to run down and watch. I've had so many great times with family and friends, and in the end those are the best memories of all.

It's a tough choice to narrow them down, but I'll do my best and add four of mine...

See me in the background?

-- Pole Day, 1979. My first trip ever to the Speedway with my Dad. Like so many, he had his own Race Day tradition, washing and detailing his car while he listened to the broadcast on the radio. He had a passion for the race for 30 years before he ever set foot on the grounds, and that passion was passed along to me that day. I was hooked from the moment we walked in the old entrance at 16th and Georgetown. Rick Mears made a late-afternoon dash to capture the pole at 193 mph, and went on to win the race for the first time two weeks later. That was the start of his own personal dynasty, and that's when it all started for me, too. I still get the same feeling as I did that day every time I walk in the gates.

-- 1988. After going to Pole Day for close to a decade, I finally got the chance to experience my first race, and it was everything I thought it would be. I sat in the short chute betweens Turn 1 and 2 on a warm and sunny day, and every single color just popped in vivid glory. Danny Sullivan dominated the first half of the race, but Mears took the lead on lap 123 and never gave it back to win for the third time. The 2011 race will be the 13th time I've seen the 500 in person.

-- 2009. Helio Castroneves had spent the first few months of the year fighting for his freedom while he battled legal issues in a federal court in Atlanta. Cleared of the charges, he went to Indy looking to catch up on lost time and to find his happiness again. His pole position and third 500 win more than gave him his mojo back. I was going through a tough time then as well, and as usual the month of May lifted my spirits. It was a great way to celebrate my 40th birthday with my good friends Kevini and Joe. Knowing what Helio had just gone through, I could relate and was rooting for him as hard as ever. Helio doesn't know it, but he won that race for me.

-- 2010. I brought my two boys to Pole Day for the first time, passing the 500 down to them the same way my Dad did with me. We went to time trials together for 15 straight years, and I wouldn't trade those days and those memories for anything, especially now that my Dad is gone. The kids loved it (thankfully!) and have talked several times since about how they can't wait to go again. I'm hoping that I've started a new tradition with them!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Did It Get Much Better Than 1993?

Indy Star racing guru Curt Cavin recently remarked in his Ask The Expert blog that his favorite Indy 500 was Jacques Villeneuve's 505-mile win in 1995.
That’s a pretty good call, and probably in my own personal top-5, along with Emerson Fittipaldi’s duel with Al Unser Jr. (1989) and Sam Hornish’s last lap pass of Marco Andretti to win in 2006.
But which race in the Mike Knapp Era (since 1979) is my favorite?

I had seats in the top row just past the apex of turn 4, still probably the best seats I have ever had. And because ticket brokering (is that the more PC term?) is legal in Indiana, I can say that I paid $165 for those babies, which had a face value of $45.
It was an exciting month. Nigel Mansell had come over from Formula 1 and won his first race on his way to the CART championship. It was the first time since 1958 that the race didn’t include A.J. Foyt, who abruptly announced his retirement on pole day after 35 straight starts. Rick Mears, who had also stepped down from his ride the previous winter, was absent from the field for the first time since his rookie year in 1978.

Even missing that star power,  the race included six former winners, and seven overall as Eddie Cheever would win the 500 five years later.
Another surprise was the front row qualifying effort of Raul Boesel, who gave Dick Simon Racing its first legitimate opportunity to win the race. Boesel took the lead at the start of the race and eventually led 18 laps, but served two stop-and-go penalties which sidetracked his day.
All told, 12 drivers led laps that day. Mario Andretti led a race-high 72 laps before finishing fifth, and Mansell, who had never run a race of longer than 200 miles, paced the field for 34 circuits.
Mansell drove brilliantly and led the race heading back to a restart with 16 laps to go. His inexperience with oval track racing and restarts reared its ugly head, though, as Arie Luyendyk and Fittipaldi whipped past him, with Fittipaldi eventually taking the lead and pulling away to win in just under three seconds.

Fittipaldi, who almost went a lap down in turn 4 early, drove a patient race and was in front for the final 16 laps, which were the only laps he had led all day. He was fast when he needed it most.
Watching the race on YouTube recently, I was amazed at how fierce the racing was through the entire field. A total of 24 cars were running at the finish, and I believe the top eight finishers were on the frontstretch when Fittipaldi took the checkered flag.
Quite simply, this race was absolutely stacked. It included multiple 500 winners, multiple F1 world champions, past and future CART series champions and a slate of drivers who competed in the race more than 10 times. Without a doubt that field is on the short list of one of the deepest fields the race has ever assembled.

Arguably, CART was the premiere racing series in the world at the time. If you won a race around that time, you had to beat many of the best drivers on the planet.
For me it would be the last 500 I would see in person for seven years, as I moved away from Indy early the next year and started a family, then put the race on the shelf along with many others when the split happened in 1996.
I'm glad I came back, and I think that the series and the particularly the Indy 500 are making a comeback as well. Can it ever return to those glory days? Probably not, but it's something to reach for. And if you ever want to show someone what open wheel racing looks like when it is at its best, this is a good place to start.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Scott Dixon...Odd Man Out?

(Second in a two-part series)

When Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball were introduced as Target Chip Ganassi's newest drivers last week, Ganassi made a strange comment that really got me thinking.

"As a company, we need to stay competitive and on the forefront," he said last Thursday. "I think you have to be constantly looking at what drivers are coming along. I'm not pushing (Dario) Franchitti and (Scott) Dixon [age 37 and 30, respectively] out the door, but they are obviously of a different era than these guys."

Where did a comment like THAT come from? You double the number of drivers in your team and then talk about the departures of the other two, that is just weird.

On the surface, Ganassi bringing in two young and talented drivers makes perfect sense. Looking ahead to the future, if you have the means it's best to lock up young talent and give them the resources to ultimately take over the lead roles of the team.

Franchitti will never be "pushed out the door". He's too valuable in so many ways beyond just the box scores, and right now is the best driver in the series and a popular champion. Though he likes to work with one-year contracts, so long as his desire and talents don't decline any time soon, he can drive for Ganassi until he decides to walk away on his terms. That could be as early as after the 2012 season, but still it will be his decision. He's earned that right.

So if that quote doesn't apply to Franchitti, Dixon is the only one Ganassi could have been referring to. Even in the questions I've heard directed at Dixon this past season makes it seem like there isn't widespread confidence that he is with the team for the long haul.

He's the red-headed stepchild (pun intended) with that team, and trying to figure out why is something that takes a lot of thought, because on the surface it just doesn't make sense.

To me it's a mixed emotion. Ganassi's indifference towards one of his most successful drivers -- and given who he has employed in the past that says a lot -- is all at once mind-boggling and something that given the new environment that is IndyCar racing makes sense.

Mind boggling because the guy is a great racer. In just 115 IndyCar starts, Dixon has 24 wins and 53 total podium finishes. He's also won the series title twice (2003 and 2008), has won the Indy 500 (2008) and has completed every lap at Indy seven times in the last eight years. Dixon is consistently fast, takes care of his equipment and makes his boss gobs of money.

You would think that some of the decisions about his future would be on his terms, that he earned that right almost as much as Franchitti has. But that isn't the case.

Two words in Ganassi's quote jump out at me: "different era". Guys like J.R. Hildebrand, Rahal and Kimball represent what IndyCar and its teams are looking for going forward. Circumstances are falling into place where open wheel racing can make a serious push into the national conscience of race fans and sports fans in general. Drivers all of the sudden want to drive in IndyCar, the series is stocking up its farm system by establishing a legitimate ladder program and sponsors are looking once again at investing their money.

It's almost now or never, and the clock is ticking. Everybody knows this.

With that in mind, owners want people who can drive, but who at the same time are outgoing and can deal with sponsors, media and fans through face-to-face contact and all other sorts of social media outlets. That can balance all of that while maintaining a laser-like focus to their job.

Tony Kanaan represents that new focus, as do guys like Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, Ed Carpenter and Alex Tagliani.

That's where Dixon seems to struggle. He seems like a nice guy who smiles very easily, but otherwise is extremely guarded and private. He has a Twitter account -- a social media many drivers use to quite a large extent to stay in touch with fans -- but has other people tweet for him instead of opening up a little sliver of his life to give us a better look at him. While I have never seen how he interacts with fans or sponsors personally, it does seem like in interviews he is very polite, but it is obvious he is uncomfortable and would rather be somewhere else.

His driving style is just as guarded. Fast as hell and very cerebral, he gets the job done, but my pulse has never been sent pumping by watching him tear through the field or make an all-or-nothing pass for the lead. He represents the unfortunate set of "I had a second-place car and I'm happy finishing second" drivers that have seem to come to the forefront of the sport, especially in NASCAR.

Mind you, personally I like Dixon as he seems like a very nice man, but when he wins a race it's like "cool, the guy won". I just don't see anyone being inspired by him. I think in terms of raw talent he is in the team picture with the greats of this generation when it comes to the track, and if he even scratched the surface of some of these guys and their charisma and personality we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Maybe Dixon is too good for his own good. An ultra-talented driver who off the track doesn't represent the entire package that it is starting to appear a top driver in IndyCar needs to possess. Kicking a successful 30-year-old driver who has 150-plus great races left in him out the door?

Welcome to the new era.

Rehashing the Expansion of the Ganassi Empire

(Part one of a two-part series)

During the summer I cover a minor league baseball team (Kane County Cougars, a KC Royals affiliate) and when I was thinking of the angle I wanted to take with Chip Ganassi expanding his team and bringing in Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, I kept thinking about conversations I have with pro scouts, coaches and front office guys.

The more thought I gave this, the more I realized that this move was all about player development.

Not necessarily in Rahal's case of course. He has won in the past, and he is ready to win now. If he gets the same car underneath him that Scott Dixon and Dario Fanchitti roll off the truck, he will be a contender from the get-go when the season opens in St. Petersburg in just over 90 days, where, oh by the way, he won in 2008.

Just like Marco Andretti, Rahal has been around for a while, so it's still a little strange to think that in reality he is just barely getting started, and won't even turn 22 until Jan. 4. The early start he got to his career has him in a place where he can do big things at a young age.

For Kimball, who turns 26 in February and saw his career take a temporary step back when he missed time after being diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, I feel like this move is all about the future.

In minor league baseball, the objective isn't to win games (although that's nice), championships (even nicer) or to but up big numbers. It is about giving young players the chance to get thousands of inning and at-bats of experience before they are ready for the big time.

While all of that will be at the big league level for him, just like a developing baseball player, his successes will be measured in ways that won't show up on race day. He will be evaluated on how he drives, but at the same time this is about getting him to learn to set up a car, how he handles adversity and how capable he will be down the road to stand up as one of the prominent faces of the team. If he does all of that, he will be put in the position to win down the road.

Ganassi knows this, and it was a brilliant move. Rahal is obviously the heir apparent to Franchitti, and Kimball is in the wings to either join the big team as a third car or act as Dixon's replacement should Ganassi's strange indifference towards Dixon continue.

So you sign a guy with potential, send him to an affiliate (the shop in Brownsburg) and let him see if he can develop into something special. And, like a large-market baseball team, he also has Kimball under contract so that other people can't touch him for a while.

Kimball's learning will be on-the-job, but I don't think any driver could ever want a better situation than he will be going into next year. He will have top-flight equipment and all of the resources necessary to succeed.

Meanwhile, with three successful, high-profile drivers working above him, he can go about his business in an environment that is more than likely designed to keep the pressure off of him as much as possible. While the media and those of us who think we are entitled to an opinion might start wondering why he isn't stringing together top-5 finishes or whatever, he has the knowledge that his boss isn't doing the same.

Kimball has driven in eight different series on two continents over the last nine years. He's done well everywhere he's gone, and has improved from season to season along the way.

Moving up to the IndyCar series is the next natural step in the progression of his career. The fact that he gets to make that move and be in the situation he is in is going to make him a better driver in the long run. That is what development is all about, and he is going to more than likely develop into a pretty good one, especially because he is being given the chance to do just that.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some thoughts on Kanaan to DeFerran Dragon

By now it is pretty much common knowledge that Tony Kanaan is heading to DeFerran Dragon Racing for 2011. That's a great signing and will be a great partnership as TK is the guy that can take that team to the next level.

The administration part of the organization has always been solid with Jay Penske in charge, and was even strengthened when de Ferran came on last season. Now they have a guy who can get the most out of the car and with all due respect to Rafa Matos, that was something they just haven't had yet.

Still, I think that while the departure from Andretti Autosport was mainly his idea due to his sponsor (7-11) leaving and was a completely amicable thing, it was a big loss to that team, and one that has been often times downplayed in its significance.

TK was the heart and soul of that team. The guy who drove the hardest, put up the best results and acted as a mentor/babysitter/referee to the younger drivers on the team. He was its leader and everyone on that team benefitted from his efforts, especially his ability to provide the rest of the team with its setups. Which is a whole 'nother discussion for another day.

Given the higher profile of teammates Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, is it possible that TK is a bit underrated? Possibly. He never received the treatment and respect due for a guy that wins one out of every nine races he starts and has 49 podiums in 124 career events.

But if that's the case, he has the chance to change that perception in the future. While its going to be difficult to improve his place in the IndyCar standings, especially since Ganassi is now running four cars, he has the potential to really thrive since he will have less to worry about as part of a one-car team (with Davey Hamilton running a part-time schedule).

So who steps up at Andretti? It doesn't appear like it will be Andretti or Patrick. Marco still needs to gain some maturity (and he's only 23 so that will did for his dad) and Danica's flirtation with NASCAR doesn't represent the all-in commitment it takes to ascend to the lead role with any team. Ryan Hunter-Reay seems more like a Bryan Herta-guy...someone who does tons of work behind the scenes and that is where he is the most comfortable. Actually, the reported possibility of Dan Wheldon coming on as a fourth car would be the best possible situation, as he is capable and comfortable with being the face of a franchise.

Somebody has to lead that team. Even with TK and his best efforts, the team has nearly imploded in the past, with drivers sniping at each other and situations arising that resulted in several come-to-Jesus meetings among the members of the organization. Racing is a sport of huge egos, but when your team is at a competitive disadvantage with Penske and Ganassi dominating the series, you can't afford to have those lapses, especially when those become very, very public.

Maybe these things go on amongst the players in the Big Two as well, but I'd guess not because they wouldn't be tolerated. If they are, it's only to a point and then it is dealt with privately.

Sometimes it seems like when some questions get answered, more arise. AA has taken several hits over the last few weeks with TK leaving and multiple sponsors departing. Finding who becomes the face of that team isn't the biggest problem they have right now, but if they get too far into 2011 without dealing with it, it will become one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Frenetic Friday -- Awards Day!

Friday is upon us once again, and today is about post-season awards. I’ve mailed everyone who appeared in a race this year a participation trophy, because they are all winners, darn it (!) and the guys listed below get the special awards, plus a free chicken dinner at the 15 Days In May banquet. Hope they can make it!

Driver of the Year: Dario Fanchitti. Will Power won more races (5) and captured more poles (8) but his lack of performance on ovals gives this one to the Scotsman, who logged three wins, including the Indy 500, and a ridiculously consistent performance all year long to win the IndyCar title.

Drive of the Year: Tony Kanaan (Indianapolis). TK had a dreadful weekend of qualifying, crashing twice before squeezing into the field with 30 minutes to go on Bump Day. Starting dead last he drove up through the field and ran as high as second before pitting for fuel with four laps to go and finishing 11th. TK drove so hard that day and it was fun to watch.

Co-Rookies of the Year: Simona de Silvestro/Alex Lloyd. Both had great runs at the 500, with Lloyd finishing sixth and de Silvestro placing 14th and earning ROY honors there. Each qualified in the top-10 once (not easy coming from a 2nd-tier team) during the season and had some solid runs, as well as some setbacks, but overall both turned in a typical rookie season and seemed to improve as the year went on.

Best Looking Car: Takuma Sato’s Lotus-sponsored ride for KV Racing paid homage to the Jim Clark cars of the mid-1960s. Unfortunately we never saw the car for long on race day, as Sato usually hit something along the way and damaged the car. Sato, who won’t return in 2011, combined with E.J. Viso and Mario Moraes to wreck close to 40 cars during the season.

Race of the Year: Kentucky. The championship drama at Homestead was fun for a while but Kentucky was the day for the non-red cars to shine. Dan Wheldon led a race-high 93 laps and finished third, while Ed Carpenter qualified on the pole and led late until having to pit for fuel and giving up the race lead (and win) to Helio Castroneves. Momentum had been building for the non-Ganassi/Penske/Andretti Autosport teams on the 1.5-mile ovals all year, and Kentucky was where they almost pulled it off.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

While We Are Talking About Sam Hornish

Let's revisit his 2006 win. This is actually from the ESPN Deportes broadcast. I can barely understand a word these guys say, but excitement and enthusiasm always translates. Just some funny stuff.

Look Who's Back! (Maybe)

There are rumors, reports or otherwise wishful thinking that have Sam Hornish coming back to run the Indy 500. While these rumors have been around since he left for the greener (pun intended) fields of NASCAR after winning the race and series championship in 2006, they seem a little more plausible this year, given his lack of sponsorship and funding for the 2011 Sprint Cup season.

He certainly would have options as several teams will have one-off opportunities to run cars at Indy. Of course the best scenario would have Hornish reuniting with former boss Roger Penske and making May a 4-car effort in that stable. With the massive amounts of sponsorship he has secured for next season with the likes of Shell Oil, Verizon and Meijer, Penske would have the funds to do it, and do it right.

If coming back to Indy is a goal for Hornish, he should only do it if he has the potential to win the race. Otherwise it would be a waste of his time.

What would be great for Hornish, and not to mention the IndyCar series, is that it would hopefully represent a precursor to his returning to open wheel racing for good sometime down the road. While I wouldn't call his move to stock cars a "failure" as he has become a solid and respected racer in Cup, there are two facts that are undeniable: 1) unless something changes he will always be a mid-pack driver who will win few (if any) races, and will more than likely never contend for a championship and 2) he's an open wheel guy. It's what he is good at.

Contrary to popular opinion, Cup isn't the standard to which drivers should be measured. Coming back to open wheel racing isn't a demotion. For Dario Franchitti it was revitalizing, and his performances over the last two years has vaulted him into the list of the best drivers on the planet.

I'm sure he makes gobs of money doing what he does, probably more than even what a championship is worth in the IndyCar series. And if he is content with driving around in circles and picking up a check, more power to him. But he's still only 31, and could pick up another 500 win and a championship or two before he was done.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tomas Scheckter...No Holds Barred. And I Like It.

The guy is total entertainment on the track and it looks like he might be just as much fun to watch when he is at the keyboard. Blogging for the first time on the IndyCar website, he pulls very few punches.

Scheckter has a lot to say on several different issues, and while he is on point with some things and a little off on others, I like the fact that they are his opinions and he is willing to throw them out there. And I think in some places he truly gets it, what this sport is about and what the fans want to see. A quote I particularly liked:

"I fully understand that racing is expensive and sponsors want a certain image but I think for the overall popularity of the sport everyone needs to loosen up."

I agree 100 percent. I think one of the reasons the fans are losing touch with the drivers is because they are all so afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing that they come across stuffy and uninteresting. By all accounts, five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is very funny and a great guy to be around in private. So why is he so boring when it comes to the image he projects in public? Why is it when he does express a point or opinion it sounds so fake and forced?

Because his bosses told him he had to be so that he doesn't piss people off. I agree with keeping your nose clean in order to not embarrass your team, sponsors or yourself. That goes with any job. Even I have that responsibility to my employer. At the same time, that shouldn't mean you have to be completely devoid of a personality.

Maybe TV suits and sponsors like it, but being boring is one element to the decline of the sport. Sponsors pony up the cash, I get that, but the fans and the passion they show are the reason they decide to invest the money in a certain driver or team. When that passion evaporates, ultimately the sponsors feel it's not worth it and walk away.

I don't want people to be phony, but I think in this new era of Indy cars I want to see people who are allowed to be themselves. Here's a tip...people don't get as offended when people speak their mind as much as the media and other powers-that-be might think. No, it's not an excuse to act stupid or use your fame as an outlet to project your beliefs on others, and it's not a place to throw people under the bus when things don't go your way. But you should be able to honestly say what is on your mind.

Outside of his odd observations of the Austin Powers-type free love lives of a couple of 1970s-era racers, Tomas said nothing that I would find offensive. Did he rankle a couple of people? Sure. But was anything he said (outside of his comments on Graham Rahal, which he could have left out) not true? I don't think so.

To me, I think his blog post would make him more fans as opposed to losing them, and overall my testing of the waters -- especially in the Twitter world -- give me the impression that most people's opinion of what he wrote was very positive.

I think what he did is that he expressed EXACTLY what the fans want. They want cars to go fast and they want people that they can root for, that they can live and die for each weekend. That when the circus comes to town they want to be a part of it and want to be up close to their favorite drivers and cheer like hell for a couple of hours because it is fun.

Let me repeat that: it's fun!

Going fast (safely) and getting people excited is the formula for getting the world to stand up and take notice. That's where Tomas nails it.

I don't want to root for a corporate entity, I want to root for a guy (or girl) that shows the same passion I have for something. I want them to love racing and approach race weekend the same way I do, and that is to see my favorite driver win. Not cruise around in a "top-5" car and get out and hold up a product and say the right things. That's boring, and that is why there is a "lost generation" of race fans, people who have found the sport dull and moved on to something else.

Sports and athletes are supposed to be inspiring. That's why we watch in the first place. If I wanted dull and mundane I'd watch tapes of myself.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ryan Briscoe Goes The Distance

Congrats are in order to Ryan Briscoe for finishing the Kiawah Island Half-Marathon last Saturday in a time of one hour, 53 minutes, 39 seconds!

If I haven't mentioned it before, I'm a runner. A very fat, slow runner, but one nonetheless. I have a few marathons and half-marathons under my belt, so I take particular interest in the drivers and their workout routines, especially the guys who like to compete in running, cycling or triathlon events.

Many drivers run, and both Tony Kanaan and Vitor Meira are among those who have completed a half Ironman tri, which involves a 1.2-mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run. I've run a total of seven marathons, and even I think what they do is crazy.

Justin Wilson is a serious cyclist, and many other drivers compete in other endurance-type events as well. Many even use competing on that level as another outlet to raise money for charity, which is great too.

I have a lot of respect for their accomplishments, because I understand the time and commitment it takes to be able to get to the starting line. And then how getting to the finish line is a step even beyond that. It certainly isn't easy, but I'm sure they can attest to it being a lot of fun.

And To Think I Sometimes Worry About Having Enough Material

Not the way the series is going now.

The good news keeps coming in droves for the IndyCar series, and continued today with the announcement of J.R. Hildebrand officially joining the fold at Panther Racing. Also being reported is that Graham Rahal has a seat in a new partnership between everything-he-touches-turns-to-gold Chip Ganassi and drag racing legend Don Prudhomme. Joining Rahal will be Charlie Kimball, who drove for Andretti Autosport in the Indy Lights series last year.

Wait a minute...three guys, all under 25 years old, all American and the product of American developmental racing series (though Kimball has also raced in Europe), and they have full-time rides with solid teams, not to mention full-time funding?

Who would have thought of this a year ago, let alone six months ago?

I'm not sure what I'm more amazed by, the idea of American drivers getting a shot in the series, or that there are corporations out there that have finally realized that these guys are worthy of the investment. Then again, I'm not going to question it, either.

The best part about it, is that all of these guys can seriously drive. Hildebrand won the Indy Lights championship in 2009 and reportedly blew Panther away in a test at Phoenix last week, Rahal, well, is Rahal, who at 21 already has major open wheel wins and impressed everywhere he went last year. He has also shown through his ambition, enthusiasm and persistence that he is more and more like his dad ever day in terms of not only driving ability but solid business sense. Kimball, meanwhile, posted eight top-5 finishes in the Lights series a year ago, and finished second in the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis last May. And from what I have read he is a runner, which adds to the coolness factor for me.

Good stuff all around, for sure! While I don't think the series needs to be chock full of American drivers to be a success -- give me 25 quality drivers and I honestly could care less where they come from -- I think it is awesome when the opportunity presents itself to get good drivers in the seats. The better and more positive thing to that is the thought that there are young drivers who are out there that choose to follow the path in open wheel racing as opposed to heading straight to NASCAR.

There are a lot of open wheel fans that are going to have a great Christmas. Better yet,  we are close to being less than 100 days from the season opener March 27 in St. Petersburg!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I'm on Twitter!

Look for me on my new Twitter account: @15daysinmay

You can also find me on my personal accound: @knappieruns262

Bringing Speed Back to the Indy 500

Though I can't find the direct quote, motorsports writer Brant James tweeted from a Performance Racing tradeshow roundtable discussion that IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said that he wants to bring the speed back to the Indy 500, so long as it can be done safely.

I've been waiting for a long time to hear something like that!

Bernard has been saying and doing plenty of the right things lately, and it is amazing to see the momentum for the series that he has facilitated.

Since the craziness of 1996 where speeds jumped almost 10 mph in a year, the pole speed has only been above 230 twice since then. Back then, I was one of the believers that those speeds had become too unsafe and welcomed rules that slowed down the cars. The safety standards that existed for the cars, drivers and track itself were just not adequate for cars going that fast. But today a combination of stronger cars, SAFER barriers and the HANS device protects the drivers about as much as you possibly can.

Now, I'm not part of the portion of the fanbase that says we should open things up and let the cars go as fast as they can. There is a point that it is just "too fast". Where that threshold lives is hard to say. 240? 250?

The difference between 225 and 240 is in the neighborhood of 2.5 seconds per lap (and for numbers geeks like me out there it's 22 feet per second -- 352 feet per second at 240 versus 330 feet at 225). Stretching that out over the 2 1/2 miles of the Speedway doesn't seem like a lot, although I wonder how the drivers feel about it. It still probably wouldn't look as fast to them as 215 does at Texas!

Then again, what do I know? On the highway 75 and 90 don't look much different to me (although I haven't driven that fast in years, YEARS I tell you!), so I'm just taking the guess that it might be that relative.

The time is right to do it for so many reasons. From a competition standpoint, it would force the three engine builders to step up their game and push their engineering forward, which would be fun to watch. It would also bring attrition back into the equation, which is the point of testing both man and machine. Now getting the cars to go 500 miles is just way too easy.

From a fan standpoint, it is a perfect opportunity to capitalize on the forward momentum and get people excited about the race again. Speed is what does it, always has and always will. I went to Pole Day every year from 1979-94, a time during which the four-lap track record was broken 15 times. There was an energy that existed that is hard to describe, a buzz that was felt around the whole town. Even people who weren't very interested in the 500 still knew what was going on.

There was a nice feel to time trials this year, as the fast nine shootout was fun to watch. But there were only 10,000 people there, it was just hard to get too excited. There was plenty of drama and Helio Castroneves' runs were just epic, and if there were 10 times that many people it would have been close to electric.

How much interest would there be for the 500 if the cars were going faster and pushing towards another track record? Plenty. People would stand up and take notice. Chicks dig the long ball, and they also dig track records.

And how cool would it be if the Speedway took it one more step, and the first driver to break Arie Luyendyk's one and four-lap track records of 237.498 and 236.986 would be serenaded with a tape of Tom Carnegie's famous line "It's a neeeewwww track record!"

The place would go nuts, and the racing world probably would too.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Frenetic Friday -- Did You Know Edition

Since Fast Friday is more than likely trademarked (and we don't want to step on anyone's toes here at 15 Days...especially if those toes have lawyers), the Frenetic Friday portion of the program involves little known facts, statistics or my very own opinion on a particular subject.

Today is little-known facts about 500 winners:

 1) 1911 winner Ray Harroun may have won the 500 in his only appearance, but it wasn't the only time he tasted victory at the Speedway. Harroun finished with eight wins total, having also won smaller feature races since the track had opened two years earlier.

2)From the start of the 1952 race until his tragic death in an accident on lap 57 in 1955, two-time winner Bill Vukovich (1953-54) dominated the race like few have in history. Vukovich turned 647 laps in that span and led 485 of amazing 75 percent.

3)Bobby Rahal finished his 1986 win with a flourish, turning the race's fastest lap of the day (209.152) on the last lap of the race. On the 75th anniversary of the first 500, it was also the fastest lap ever turned in the race at the time and still remains the only time since 1951 that the fastest race lap came on lap 200. Eddie Cheever, the 1998 winner, holds the record for the fastest race lap ever at 236.103 (1996). That one should stand for a while.

4)Harroun, Jules Goux, Rene Thomas, Peter DePaolo, Louis Meyer and Jim Rathmann all lived long enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their first race win. Rathmann joined the club last year and at 82 is the oldest living race winner. A.J. Foyt, who won the first of his four races in 1961, will hopefully mark that milestone in 2011.

5)By contrast, Ray Keech was killed in a racing accident in Tipton, PA just 16 days after winning the 500 in 1929. Sadly, a total of 13 former winners later lost their lives in racing incidents, the last being 1972 winner Mark Donohue, who was killed in 1975 during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I Feel Like Part of the Family Now!

Major props to Pressdog, who welcomed me into the IndyCar blogosphere with an absolutely hysterical post on his site today!

He's fantastic and his race day blogs are an absolute riot. Becoming a fan of his site was one of the reasons I thought it might be fun to do this. Oh wait, I'm not supposed to be having fun! LOL

I appreciate the response and once my blogging skills get better I'll spread the love to my fellow racing bloggers too!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Quote of the day!

This is what my blog is all about.

"Just thinking about the Indy 500 gives me goose bumps, raises my heart rate and gets me more excited than any kid could possibly get about either Thanksgiving, Christmas or meeting his/her favourite superhero." -- Alex Tagliani

The rest of his blog post is here:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is there a "best interests of racing" clause?

Those of us who happen to remember Bowie Kuhn as the commissioner of baseball back in the day might remember his blocking of certain deals and contracts as not being in the "best interests of baseball".

Does IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard have that power as well? Because if he did he might want to use it.

Penske Racing had made two prior sponsor announcements in the last few days (Shell Oil and Meijer) and today threw down an absolute dagger today when series sponsor Izod followed Meijer in the switch from Andretti Autosport to Penske.

You can read it here:

Quite the shocker because 1) Izod kept spending money on Ryan Hunter-Reay with each strong result he posted and 2) Hunter-Reay has shown he is one of the better American drivers out there, and his partnership with Izod looked like a natural fit.

So is having some of the most lucrative sponsors in the series tied to just two teams -- Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing -- a good thing? It's good business from the companies' standpoint, I get that. In the end that might be the only thing that matters.

But from a team/racing standpoint, I think it cancels out some of the good things that have happened lately. Graham Rahal getting full sponsorship for 2011 (he's still shopping for a team) and Ed Carpenter stepping in for a retiring Sarah Fisher for nine races, if not more next year if he is successful, were certainly a step in the right direction.

But now Andretti Autosport seems to be hemmoraghing sponsors, with 7-11 leaving a couple of months ago, and now Meijer and Izod defecting as well. Danica Patrick is the only driver left in the stable whose sponsorship is set for 2011, and that is probably only because would follow her back to midgets if that's what she wanted to do.

A huge problem with the series is that competitive balance is totally skewed, and this makes it worse. To the victors go the spoils, and unless you are the NFL it always remains that way.

Fifteen wins and 15 poles going to just two teams (Ganassi and Penske) doesn't do a lot when it comes to generating excitement in the series. It's like the difference between big market and small market teams in baseball. When the small market doesn't have a chance most weekends, why pay attention?

Getting some semblance of that balance back into the series is crucial to its success. The big question is how can it be done?

Six months down...six to go

As I sit here with below-zero windchills outside, it's hard to think May will EVER get here! But we are halfway there, so here are a few highlights to keep us going through the winter:

Friday, December 3, 2010

My big break?

No, not really. But it is what gave me the idea for this blog. Racing broadcaster Jack Arute invited me to post a "guest blog" on his website. Of course I obliged, and you can read my engine manifesto here...

I think Christmas comes in May...

...which is why I am sharing my thoughts, opinions and memories of a lifetime following the Indy 500. I write about sports for a living (sort of, it goes along with my day job) and spend a lot of time doing research, compiling stats and putting together real, actual sentences and paragraphs in order to look like I know what I'm doing when that actually shows up in print.

This blog isn't about that. It's just a free-flowing set of thoughts, stories and opinions about the race, and the common bond that I know I share with other people. If I get the yen I might actually do some real sportswriting here, but don't hold your breath!