Sunday, January 30, 2011

Greatest 33 -- Honorary Row 12

The Indy 500 has been around for 100 years, and for 82 of those that race was the only event held on the hallowed grounds.

When NASCAR arrived with much fanfare (and hand-wringing from traditionalist fans) in 1994, Formula 1 followed a few years later in 2000 and finally Moto GP took the track way back to its roots when motorcycles began racing there in 2008.

Now the Speedway has multiple events of different motorsports disciplines, and that's a good thing. While it was at first hard to see stock cars rumbling (slowly) down the main straight, the facility is now truly a center of racing, bringing even more people than ever before from around the world to 16th and Georgetown.

That also means that there have been great drivers who have raced at the Speedway but never turned a lap in the 500. While the Greatest 33 is specifically for the drivers that have, I decided to add an honorary 12th row for a trio of guys who have added to the Speedway's legacy.

There is a precedent...on several occasions the race had more than 33 starters. So I'm making an exception here and adding to the field.

Inside Row 12: Michael Schumacher

The United States Grand Prix was run at Indy eight times, and Schumacher won five of them. He also won four poles and would have six victories if not for slowing down in 2002 in order to "tie" the race with Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello, who was awarded the victory by just .0011 seconds.

Middle Row 12: Dale Earnhardt

Before being killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt made seven starts in the Brickyard, winning the race in 1995 and posting two other top-5 finishes. Indy was actually one of the few tracks he didn't dominate in his career, leading just 37 of the 1,118 laps he completed, and came home 10th, 15th and 29th position in three of his runs. Yes, this is a Lifetime Achievement Award...while he may not have been an "Indy only" great, he is one of the all-time greats of stock car racing and deserves to be here.

Outside Row 12: Jeff Gordon

Gordon on his 1994 victory lap
Gordon seemed destined to drive in, and win, the Indy 500. After his family moved from California to Pittsboro, Ind. when he was in high school to further his racing career, it was always assumed he would work his way up to the highest levels of open wheel racing. Unfortunately, NASCAR got to him first and his career took that path. It paid off for him, though, as Gordon has become one of NASCAR's most decorated champions, and is certainly the most dominant stock car driver ever at the Speedway. Gordon was just two days past his 23rd birthday when he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. He's followed that up with wins in 1998, 2001 and 2004 and is one of just four drivers (Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin) who have run in all 17 Brickyards. He has sat on the pole three times and has led a record 440 laps.

So that adds a "fantasy racing" aspect to a list of the greatest, and does recognize a little bit of history outside of the 500. The only question remains is: how long would it take these three guys to get to the front?

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Big-Name Cup Driver Doing the Double...Keep Dreaming

For a while there, it was common to see a driver do double duty and race in both the Indy 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day.

John Andretti was the first driver to attempt the feat in 1994, while Robby Gordon doubled up four times and Tony Stewart ran both races twice. Stewart is the only driver to finish on the lead lap in both races (1,100 total miles) by finishing sixth at Indy and third at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 2001.

In throwing around ideas to improve the profile of the 500, the thought of a big-name NASCAR driver running both races has started to make the rounds every so often. Randy Bernard stirred the pot when he and LMS owner Bruton Smith thought there should be a $20 million bonus opportunity to the driver that could win both events, and Jimmie Johnson admits that he would like to because he wants to drive in the 500, but would more than likely pass.

Stewart at Indy in 2001
This topic of a NASCAR driver doubling up will always be out there, but outside of the lesser drivers who want to add a cool accomplishment to their career resumes, the idea of a Jeff Gordon, Johnson or Stewart giving it a try is not going to happen. It's just a lose-lose proposition in so many ways.

The risk of jumping into an open wheel car for a one-off is just too great. With their busy schedules, they would get little to no time behind the wheel of an IndyCar before the month started, and they wouldn't be able to focuse solely on getting in laps and miles because they would have their other commitments as well.

Don't forget, before they even did the double, Robbie Gordon, Andretti and Stewart had significant time in both disciplines. All three have won NASCAR and CART/IRL races, and their career paths of having driven in several types of both open wheel and stock cars have made them very adept at adjusting to different styles of racing.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who won Indy in 2000 and is a former CART champion and F1 driver, would join Stewart as a guy who could jump in and compete quickly. But for the other drivers, no matter their skill, there would still be a learning curve, especially at Indy.

With seat time and experience, a top-level Cup driver would probably do fine in open wheel. They wouldn't have that in this situation, which would also raise safety concerns, both for themselves and their competitors.

Racing is big business, drivers-get-paid-like-corporate-CEOs business. Millions upon millions of dollars are floating around, and more is at stake than there might have been in years past. If a guy like Johnson had a Mike Conway-style wreck and was hurt for the rest of the year, they would take a significant financial hit. And what if they had one that ended their careers?

Sure, they have enough money already, but that isn't the point. People work hard to get where they are and to accomplish great things, and to see that get affected as the result of a high-speed, high-risk side project isn't worth it.

On the series' sides, there is also nothing to gain and a lot to lose. 

Weighing the odds, a NASCAR driver has a greater chance of failing at this venture than winning the race. Given NASCAR calls itself the greatest racing series in the world, what would it be like if one of their marquee guys struggled? What if they had some bad luck and crashed in practice or the race, or, racing gods forbid, failed to qualify?

That would look bad. It would look really bad. Most of us true racing fans would understand, it's happened to some of our own greats before. But NASCAR's public perception among many would take a huge hit.

On the flip side, how would it look to IndyCar if one of them showed up, found the right combination and had a dominating month before ultimately winning the race? That would look even worse. Think about some recent history...while it was probably a good idea to begin letting CART drivers back into the 500 in 2000 as it ultimately brought Penske and Ganassi (and finally the rest of the teams) back to the series, Montoya's win was humiliating to the IRL.

Ganassi's team showed up and just drilled everyone, took the Borg-Warner Trophy and went home, which Penske then did the next year with Helio Castroneves. The series' credibility took a big hit when CART teams showed up and did better in the unfamiliar equipment than the regulars could.

Call it a conspiracy theory, but I also think part of the Cup drivers' reluctance to come to the 500 is due to pressure from above. Prior to the 500 pushing back the start time from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Stewart had already announced he was no longer going to run both races in order to focus on his Cup team, but I firmly believe that wasn't wholly his decision. He's a racer, he loves to drive, and his results doing both races spoke for itself.

NASCAR rules its series with an iron fist. Every decision -- yes, even on race day -- is made with the series' popularity and perception in mind, and that's it. There is no way that they are going to make (or sign off on) any decision that helps IndyCar. Giving them drivers that would presumably help ratings or call more attention to the 500, especially given they have a big race of their own the same day, doesn't make sense from a business side.

You get an idea of NASCAR's opinion of IndyCar when you see how poorly the series was treated at tracks that were run by the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which NASCAR happens to own and operate. They were such poor business partners that IndyCar had to drop tracks from its schedule, which by the way in the end will be a good thing for IndyCar.

I think if the 500 start is pushed up again, a guy like Robby Gordon or Andretti might give it a try, but if we think any of the others are coming, we are just dreaming.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Frenetic Friday -- Greatest Front Row Edition

Voting begins later on in the spring for the Speedway’s Greatest 33. With a pool of 100 drivers to choose from, whittling it down to the best of that group will be an interesting process.
I’ve started assembling my field, and some of my choices as to where each driver “qualifies” is even a bit surprising to me! But over the course of the next few weeks, I will be revealing my choices, as well as adding some commentary as to who shouldn’t be in the field.
Today is the first row. Luckily this one is easy!

Pole (Inside row 1): Rick Mears

Won the 500 four times (1979, 84, 88, 91) and sat on the pole another six to go along with breaking the one and four-lap track records on five occasions. He also had nine top-5 finishes just 15 career starts. A true master of the oval, his patient style of settling in and working on his car until the late stages always made him fast at the end. His pass of Michael Andretti on the outside of Turn 1 to win his fourth race in 1991 was the perfect capper to his stellar career.

Middle row 1: A.J. Foyt
Mears bumped “Super Tex” out of P1 with an amazing run just before the 6 p.m. gun sounded. While Foyt is hands-down one of the greatest drivers ever and gets the nod at any other track on the planet, Mears accomplished just as much (or more) in a shorter period of time. Also a four-time winner (1961, 64, 67, 77) as a driver and once (1999) as an owner, Foyt is one of the most popular personalities in Speedway history. His record of 35 consecutive starts will never, and I repeat, never be broken, and as a driver and owner he has been a part of over 50 races! Another amazing stat is that he qualified at 142 mph in his first start in 1958, and 222 in his last in 1992, which is a true testament to his skill and the gift he has to drive (and engineer) race cars. Foyt is a living piece of the Speedway’s history.
Outside row 1: Al Unser Sr.
Winning the 500 once is an incredible accomplishment, and to do it four times is almost superhuman. No doubt the front row should be made up of the three men to have accomplished this feat. Unser is a quiet man who likes to just go about his business – and usually his business was going really fast. He was the ultimate front-runner, picking up wins in 1970-71, 78 and 87 and retired having led a record 644 laps, including 15 laps in his final race in 1993. Unser is the best and most successful driver in a family full of great ones, and in my mind might be one of the most underrated drivers ever. And that will be a column for another day.
One row down, 10 to go. But coming up this weekend, one driver who SHOULDN’T be on the list. And that one might be a shocker!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Greatest 33...Let the Debate Begin!

There are so many very, very cool things in the works to celebrate the Centennial in May, and the Speedway recently gave fans a taste of a new website that is sure to spark a lot of conversation and debate.
It’s called The Greatest 33, and it will be a site where fans can vote on who they think would make up the best 11 rows of three of all-time.
In all, 732 drivers have competed in the 500, and the month of May provides one of the toughest tests in the sport. Hundreds of laps of practice lead to a 10-mile qualifying run (or runs). Not one fast lap, four of them, and as the clock ticks towards 6 p.m. on Sunday, the pressure mounts.
Because if you aren’t one of the 33 fastest qualifiers, you don’t get in. No exceptions and no exemptions. You qualify or load up the trucks and go home, whether you are the defending 500 winner (Al Unser Jr., 1995), the reigning series champion (Bobby Rahal, 1993) or are one of the best drivers of your generation (Paul Tracy, 2010).
But that just GETS a driver to race day, and there they must negotiate the fastest race in the world on a tough, unforgiving oval. It’s why only 67 of them have made it to Victory Lane, one of the more exclusive clubs in all of sports.
While there are some no-brainers, of course, picking a field of the 33 greatest drivers is an overall tough task. In the 100 years of the race, the only thing that is the same for everyone is the track itself, four corners banked at 9 degrees, 12 minutes, two 5/8-mile straightaways and two 220-yard short chutes.
Beyond that factors such as roadsters vs. rear engines or bricks vs. asphalt only add to the debate. And do you include non-winners? Sure, because there are some great drivers who never won the 500, just like there are some winners who, if you focus just on the race itself and don’t make this a lifetime achievement award, don’t even belong in the discussion.
It should be a fun process, and I am certainly going to throw my hat in the ring. Look for my first two rows in my Frenetic Friday edition!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Take a Step Forward, Marco

In an interview on the Trackside radio show Thursday night, Marco Andretti told hosts Kevin Lee and Curt Cavin that he was feeling pretty confident about his 2011 season.

He has reason to be optimistic as 2010 was arguably the best of his five-season INDYCAR career. Though his best finish of the season was third (Indy, Texas, Chicago), he scored a career-high number of points with 392 and had just one DNF (Brazil) in 17 events.

And as he also mentioned on Trackside, his sponsor situation seems to be no longer up in the air, as Venom Energy drink has signed on for three more seasons.

So with all of that good stuff going on, and former teammate Tony Kanaan leaving Andretti Autosport for DeFerran Dragon Racing this winter, 2011 is a crucial season for the third-generation driver.

"We've been working really hard," Andretti told Trackside after a day of testing at Sebring. "My friend asked me the other day 'what do we look forward to, why are we more pumped this year than last year?'. I said that simply, there were four wins I should have had last year if everything had went right with the team where we lead outright and had the race in control, and for whatever reason the race slipped away.

"If we just check off those boxes and get what we did wrong last year right, without even gaining we are in contention."

He went on to say that with Kanaan gone he is prepared to take on the face of the team, and that he responds well when more is put on his shoulders.

Now, I still don't know if he is quite ready, as I mentioned in a post here about a month ago. That's a lot to ask of someone who turns 24 two weeks before the season opens at St. Petersburg, especially someone who has struggled with consistency in the past.
Who does that this season for AA, I don't know. Still, Marco can show for the first time that perhaps he might be capable of being the man for the job in the very near future.

Just like Graham Rahal, it's hard to believe that Marco is still very young, given his five years in the series and 82 career starts. His was just two months past his 19th birthday when he had that spectacular down-to-the-wire duel with Sam Hornish at Indy, falling just over a car length short of becoming by far the race's youngest winner when Hornish made a dramatic pass on the front straight to beat him to the stripe.

By contrast, his dad Michael was 21 when he made his debut at the Speedway, and grandpa Mario was 25. He had a lot put on his shoulders at a young age 1) because of his last name and the fact he drives for his dad and 2) his close finish at Indy in 2006.

The latter, in hindsight, might have been one of the worst things to happen to Marco, as that and his win at Infineon later on in the season set a bar that was probably too high for him to clear at the time. The spotlight has always been on him, and his wrecks, broken halfshafts and other incidents -- not to mention the drama and infightinig that has sometimes gone on in the AA camp between Marco, Kanaan and Danica Patrick -- have happened on one of open wheel's largest stages.

He definitely had the talent and success to come to the big leagues when he did, but that doesn't complete the entire equation. Patience and on-track maturity also figure into the mix, and those are two things he didn't always exhibit.

Last year was a growing-up year for Marco. He drove well and for maybe the first time took more interest in his role with fans, sponsors and the business side of the sport. He's certainly always had the talent, it was just a matter of time for the rest of the package to come to him. This year might be the year that it happens.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tom Sneva -- Enter the Gas Man

During the decades of the 1970s and 80s, there were a handful of exciting drivers that when they were on the track brought fans to the edge of their seats. Checkered flag or crash, they were pure entertainment.
It seems like that era had its share of hard-charging, all-or-nothing drivers, and leading the way was “The Gas Man” – Tom Sneva.
His 18-race career was nothing short of spectacular, and one that was the epitome of finding both ends of the emotional roller coaster drivers live at the Speedway. Sneva, who won the race in 1983, also notched three runner-up finishes, three poles and five top-5s.
At the same time, Sneva only finished the 500 miles on four occasions (averaging just 121 laps per start), and crashed out of the race a record SEVEN TIMES! His accident in 1975, where he touched wheels with Eldon Rasmussen and rocketed into the catch fence in front of the Turn 2 suites, is one of the most spectacular wrecks in the race’s history.
Fortunately he walked away from that crash, and many others, and in between exhibited some amazing driving. He is still the only driver two break two speed barriers in qualifying, topping the magical 200 mph mark in 1977 and 210 in 1984, while setting both the one and four-lap qualifying records on three different occasions.
Sneva was very adept at qualifying, always finding a little bit more in his car when it came time for his 10-mile run. While some accused him of sandbagging, Sneva always insisted that wasn’t the case. He just seemed to be a little faster when it was time to go.
When the green flag fell on race day, Sneva didn’t hesitate trying to get to the front of the field, and eventually led 202 laps between 1980-84. In 1980 he became the first driver to charge from 33rd position and finish second (Scott Goodyear equaled that feat in 1992), which was part of a seven-year run where he placed in the top-6 five times.
But until 1983, he was known as the world’s fastest bridesmaid after having finished second three times in four years. That changed when he piloted the Texaco Star to his one and only win, engaging in a spirited battle with Al Unser (and a young rookie named Al Unser, Jr. who was running a screen for his dad) before getting around both Unsers with 10 laps to go. He pulled away to win by 11 seconds to finally get to Victory Lane.
For Sneva, that was the high point of his Indy career, as he never finished higher than 15th in his final eight starts. His run at the Speedway ended in 1992, when he qualified 30th in a John Menard-owned Buick and crashed out of the race on Lap 10.
One of the more colorful characters in the race’s history, Sneva was the original Social Network, often walking up and down pit lane when he wasn’t in the car in search of conversation.
Though he was always good with a quote, his penchant doing his own thing and sometimes saying the wrong thing got him into trouble, case in point his being canned by Roger Penske after winning back-to-back National Championships in 1977-78.
Still, his combination of personality, charisma and sheer driving skill made him one of the more popular drivers of his era. He finished with 13 open wheel wins in his career and was enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2005.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Frentetic Friday -- Q&A With IMS Radio Broadcaster Jake Query

Like all of us, Jake Query loves the Indianapolis 500. But unlike the rest of us, he's fortunate enough that it’s also his job. A part of the IMS Radio Network since 2007, the North Central High School and Indiana graduate gets to spend his month of May at the Speedway, and also gets paid to do it. Needless to say, he likes his gig a lot.
After two years of working as a pit reporter, Query moved high above the SE Vista in Turn 2, where he has now spent the last two years. As of now he expects to handle those duties for a third straight year in 2011.
Query, who you can find on Twitter @jakequery, was nice enough to spend some time on the phone with me and talk a little racing. Great guy, and even greater insight as to what makes the 500 so special.
15 Days in May: Growing up in Indy the 500 has probably always been a part of your life, but what are your first memories of the Speedway?
Jake Query: My grandparents lived in Clermont, so when I was little my parents would go to the race and drop my sisters and I at their house. I first remember listening to the race in 1979-80, and the first race I went to was in 1981. We had paddock seats across from Rick Mears’ pit (the year of Mears’ frightening pit fire). After that, my dad and I would go every year and sit in the SE Vista in Turn 2. I’ve now been to the race 27 times.
When I would go to the race (as a kid) I would give my mom two blank casette tapes and my jambox and have her record (the radio broadcast) of the race. I had those races on tape and that’s what I’d listen to all the time. I’ve probably listened to those races thousands of times.

15DIM: When did you decide to become a broadcaster, and was getting the opportunity to work at IMS a goal of yours?
JQ: My goal of being a broadcaster was to make a living at it. That said, it fell into place that way and once I started working in Indy I wanted to be involved in any way I could. When I joined WIBC (in Indianapolis) the first thing I said was “what can you do to get me on the network?”. When 2007 came around I had not done anything with the race, but on qualifying weekend they called and said they needed someone in the pits. They threw a headset on me and handed me a microphone and two weeks later I was doing the Indy 500.
After the race in 1983, my dad and I were leaving and I told my dad “one of these days I’m gonna do the 500 on the radio, and I’m going to do it in Turn 2”. At the age of 10 I knew broadcasting was what I wanted to do.
15DIM: What was the feeling like when the cars come at you and you hear them throw it to you in your earpiece?
JQ: It’s emotional because I’m a fan like anybody else. I know there is a heritage in Central Indiana and how many people listen to the race since it’s blacked out on TV. Like anything else you don’t think in the moment of what you are doing. It’s later when you look back at it is when you realize what you are a part of. To me it’s the most flattering aspect of my career that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of that. During the pre-race, I’m giddy, I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world because I’m a fan. But when I hear my name in my headset the professional side takes over.
15DIM: How do you spend the rest of the month?
JQ: I do freelance stuff every day. Every minute a car on the track, whether or not I have to be there I want to be there. You really can’t call this a job, can you?
15DIM: The roster of great broadcasters who have done the 500 is incredible. How does it feel to be a part of that fraternity?
JQ: I think it’s laughable. When I think about guys like Sid Collins, Paul Page, Bob Jenkins and Jerry Baker, that’s a different league. The only connection I have to them is that I’m lucky to have been put in the same position they were. The job description is the only thing that links us, otherwise they are just in a different stratosphere.
I’m a historian of the place. I’ve read everything about it and have had a lot of lunches with (500 historian) Donald Davidson. To know that in the 100 years of that place, the relatively small number of people who have had the privilege of broadcasting that race and that I am a part of that, to me that is extremely special.

I've been to almost every major sporting event in the country besides the Kentucky Derby. I've covered three Super Bowls and five Final Fours, and there is nothing in sports that compares to the energy of the first 10 laps and the last 10 laps of the Indy 500.
15DIM: What role do you have in the other races of the series?
JQ: I’m a turn announcer for every road and street course and a pit guy for the ovals. The guys that I work with (such as Mike King and Mark Jaynes), there is no more fun group of guys to travel with. We make fun of each other like a bunch of 15-year-olds 22 hours a day and we are professionals the other two.

The 15DIM Social Calendar

It's been a long week here and just no time whatsoever to get anything posted. But once I get back to it I'm excited about some of the content that I have planned. Here are a few things to keep an eye out for:

* Q&A with Jake Query, a member of the IMS radio race day broadcast.
* Profiles on drivers I've enjoyed watching over the years and those who are my favorites (in no certain order). Look for my first piece on Tom Sneva this weekend.
* Recaps of races, particularly the races from 10, 20, 30 years ago and beyond.
* INDYCAR news and views.

That's my plan and I hope you are enjoying this blog. Frenetic Friday is just a day away!

                                                                                            -- Mike Knapp

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Figuring Out Starts/Restarts at Indy

There has been a lot of talk about restart procedures in the INDYCAR series since it was announced last week that the races will go to double-file restarts on ovals beginning at either Indy or Texas.

Many of the drivers have expressed their concern about the change, and they all have their reasons. But playing devil's advocate here...I can understand their feelings, but at the same time, they drive race cars for a living. They should be able to figure it out.

Me, I'm not going to pass judgement just yet until I see it in action a couple of times. Should the drivers "figure it out" and and not all try to dive into turn one like bats out of hell (like they do now) it should work fine.

That said, 1) I don't want them to take this out of the box for Indy and 2) despite the fact it might "work" (meaning we don't have a pile of wrecked cars) it still doesn't solve any problems.

Besides, when it comes to Indy (or every oval track for that matter), two issues exist: the start of the race is the most ragged and pathetic in racing and restarts are not much better. You can stack the cars up as many wide as you want...if the procedures aren't in place to fix the true problem, it really doesn't matter.

In both cases, the drivers start racing to the green flag much earlier than they should. At the start of the race, the front row begins racing coming out of turn 4. The rest of the field begins following suit and soon everyone is strung out all over the place.

2009. And this was after they waved off the first one!
Here are starts from the last two years. The 2009 start is a photo of a Christmas card I received from the Speedway (apologies for the poor quality). This year's was better, but not much. At least in that one some of the cars were aligned in the back, but the front had yet to cross the line "the 'official' start of the race" but were already getting set up for the first turn.

That's just ugly.

I know that Brian Barnhart wants the field to be strung out a little so there is no three-wide racing into the first turn, but what we have now is a total aberration. One of the 500's great traditions is the "flying" start, and I recall in race programs I have from years ago that start was supposed to be at approximately 100 mph. But if you look at the fastest first lap ever, 217.728 recorded by Tony Kanaan in 2007, that's not a flying start, that is called being close to flat-out before the drop of the green flag.

Getty Images
On restarts, the driver in the lead is given control of the field with one lap to go in a caution period and is responsible for bringing the field to the line. Most of them start winding it up somewhere in the North Chute, which is over a half-mile from the start/finish line!

It's obvious that you can't allow the drivers to hold that responsibility and police themselves. So then it becomes the job of race control to do it for them.

First of all, I think the pace car should stay on the track for as long as it can. Hence the word "pace". They should stay just in front of the field and not pull off until the entrance to pit road. Once the pace car has given up control of the field, the cars should not be able to start accelerating until the leader passes a point that is clearly spelled out in the driver's meeting and clearly marked in as many places as possible, whether that be on the fence, the walls or even the racing surface itself.

It sounds harsh, but put the burden on the race leader. Just like the entrance to pit road, put a radar gun at that acceleration line. If he/or she is blantantly over that speed (say 10 percent) they get black-flagged and given a penalty. I've always believed a race leader is allowed some rights and priviledges, but jumping the rest of the field should not be one of them. If the leader isn't speeding here then the rest of the field likely wouldn't be, either.

Coming out of catuion periods, once the green falls passing until the start/finish line should not be allowed. At the start of the race there is some leeway there of course. But one thing that shouldn't be allowed is people running a fly pattern on the outside and picking cars off before getting to the line.

While it is exciting to watch a guy like Kanaan rush up from the back and take down eight cars on the first lap, it's also not really fair. And if more than one person gets this idea, it might lead to an incident.

On the restarts, though, it should be fairly rigid. You can set the guy in front of you up, you can pull your nose up to his front tires, that's fine. But until they hit that stripe, they cannot improve their position.

Maybe in the past that might have led to some judgement decisions, but now the technology is in place with the transponders that objective calls can be easily made. Simply have a way for the computers to highlight or flag a driver that improved their position and decide what to do from there.

I mean come on, if there is a way that in the real world a camera knows how to take a picture of a car in an intersection when a light turns red, I believe they could come up with something to make this happen.

This is a big problem, and with a lighter car with more power and a turbocharger waiting in 2012 (presumably giving the cars the ability to wind up faster), it has to be addressed. While some of these suggestions appear draconian and seem to head the other way from the "entertainment for the fans" factor, I actually believe that setting definitive rules and enforcing them would be the best way to make restarts more exciting. Actually having to execute something on a restart would put the skill of the driver back into play, while right now it is about getting on the gas first and winning drag races.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Frenetic Friday -- Raise Them to the Rafters Edition

In other sports, it is common for teams to retire numbers to symbolically recognize great players or historical moments. It would be a neat addition to the Centennial celebration if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would "retire" a few significant numbers in the race's history. Here would be a great place to start:

1 -- For decades the car that won the "national" championship the previous season typically wore this number the next season. It's also been a successful number at the Speedway, as the winner has carried this number to Victory Lane seven times (3rd most all-time) and has sat on the pole a record 13 times. Unfortunately that tradition seemed to go away as drivers and teams were identified more and more with specific car numbers but setting aside the No. 1 would be a nod to the heritage of open wheel racing.
4 -- Winning the Indy 500 is the dream of almost anyone who straps himself (or herself) into a race car, and it is the accomplishment of a lifetime to get to Victory Lane. While someday someone may add their face alongside A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. on the Mount Rushmore of racing, it's a good bet no one will ever win the 500 more than four times.

14 -- A.J. Foyt...'nuff said. Next to the late Dale Earnhardt's No. 3, this might be one of the most famous driver/number combinations in motorsports history. While his team should be able to use 14 (which is currently being carried by Vitor Meira) for as long as it likes, it should never be run by another organization.
32 -- Ray Harroun...Marmon Wasp...winner of the first Indy 500. After 100 years it's all almost mythical. 'Nuff said No. 2.

I'm not saying the series should start finding reasons to retire numbers left and right, unless they want to become like the Boston Celtics. But there are a handful of numbers that are special to the sport, and specifically the 500, and those should be recognized in a special way.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Green/White/Checker -- Part 2

I have been happy and amazed at the response to my original Green/White/Checker post from a couple of days ago. Thanks for reading and commenting, that's what this blog is here for.

So with that in mind, I thought I would share IndyCar operations man Brian Barnhart's comments in an excellent piece posted on More Front Wing as part of their coverage at the State of IndyCar event on Tuesday. Thankfully Barnhart agrees with a majority of the fans in saying a G/W/C rule is not an option for the series.

One stat he pointed out is that 93 percent of IndyCar races finish under green. Over the course of a 17-20 race season, on average that figures to only one or two races a year that finish under caution. That is more than an acceptable number.

More from the More Front Wing story:

"...altering the race distance begins to truly affect the integrity of the event.  Barnhart points to the finish of the 2010 Indianapolis 500 as the perfect example.  When Mike Conway crashed on lap 198, a significant clean-up ensued (which included a substantial amount of repair to the catch fencing).  Even if the caution had been relatively brief — say seven or eight laps plus another couple of laps of racing — it’s easily conceivable that adding length to the race could be equivalent to adding 25 or more miles to many events (which could be nearly half of a fuel run), a point which Barnhart says starts to encroach on the race’s integrity.

'It’s the Indy 500,' says Barnhart, 'not the Indy 515 or 520.  What if [the leader's] engine blows during those extra laps?  Well, he was leading at 500 miles and 502.5 and 505 and 507.5 but just didn’t make it to 520.  Is that fair?'”

Starts to encroach on a race's integrity. Great line, and the whole point of why a G/W/C shouldn't be in place.

I'm glad the the Power-That-Be understands that concept.

In the end, the best way to say it is that at each instance of a G/W/C finish, a driver ultimately gets screwed. Whether it is the driver that is leading at the end of the scheduled distance (as often happens in NASCAR as the driver leading at that point hasn't won the race), has a car issue during the "overtime" period or gets wrecked in the ensuing trophy dash, a driver who has rightly earned his or her spot has it taken away. And in the event of an accident (another common occurrence) that team spends a lot of money. In a series where cost containment is a point of emphasis, that cannot happen.

It's unfair and takes away from the idea of competition and sport. Fortunately it seems that will never be an issue in IndyCar.

State of IndyCar...Readers Digest Version

Since many of my fellow bloggers were able to attend State of IndyCar function and did a fantastic job with both their live and follow-up coverage, I'm not going to get into a large-scale roundup of the plethora of information that was passed on Tuesday in Indianapolis, other than to say I'm extremely jealous and wish I had been there!

In all, it was just a great day for the series, and Randy Bernard and his people did a great job presenting the many things that have happened to IndyCar recently and what is going to happen in the future.

I have to say I'm very confident. Why? It's not just Randy Bernard and the insane amount of work he has gotten done in his 9-10 months on the job. It's the fact that for the first time ever, there actually seems to be a plan in place and a vision for the future.

Maybe there was one before, and now it's just more transparent. If that's the case, my hat is off to the series for publically presenting their plans and letting everyone know what is going on, and what is waiting down the road.

Still, I think this time is different. When your title sponsor announces they have received a 350% return on their investment in IndyCar, and other corporate sponsors are jumping into the series, it's a huge sign that good things are happening. Also, opening an office in Santa Monica, Calif. with the idea of growing the exposure of the drivers and series through TV and other media is a very underrated decision, and the right people are in place there to make that a successful venture.

Throw in as many as three engine and four body kit manufacturers for 2012, and it's apparent that people are deciding that IndyCar racing is a good investment again.

And of course, the new influx of young American drivers is a great thing too.

There is a plan for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and beyond. That's where we as fans can feel confident that positive things to grow the series are being put into place. I don't know if I'm the only one, but it felt like in the past the series lived year to year, and almost paycheck to paycheck, so to speak.

It was almost like the old IRL existed in a state where it was always searching for its success and never seeming to find it. There were always issues that made us question the viability for the series. I mean, heck, as recently as last year I heard people express their theory that the Indy 500 would eventually become a NASCAR race.

Thank goodness, no.

As far as the 500 goes, what is upcoming this spring and culminating in May is nothing short of exciting. It's the way it should be, as the activities will bring an electricity back to the city that has been missing for a while. The Speedway has been building on the Centennail race for the last couple of years, and now we are realizing it's been for good reason.

I'm looking forward to spending the entire weekend there and am pretty amped about taking in Carb Day for the first time, attending the living driver's autograph session, and of course taking in Curt Cavin's Burger Bash for the first time, not to mention a possible May Indy Tweetup. Perhaps even a blogger's summit in there somewhere?

Lot's of good things, but that's not to say there aren't also some challenges in there too. Whether or not Firestone stays in the series beyond this year is a very big deal. Keeping them in the fold has to happen as they have been a great partner through the years.

Figuring out the TV deal is another factor. With only five races on ABC and the rest on Versus (who does a great job by the way), it's going to be difficult to appeal to the masses in a way that grows the sport. No one should expect people to tune into the 500 if they haven't been able to watch the previous races.

The league has to continue to find a way to cultivate a more competitive balance on the track. Two teams dominating qualifying and race day is not all that interesting, especially to new fans.

And for the love of (insert your own diety here), can we get Dan Wheldon and Paul Tracy full-time rides?

But to finish on a positive note, one of the more underlying messages that came out of yesterday's events is desptie the fact that there was the belief that 2011 was going to be a lame-duck year with the new equipment waiting for 2012, there a lot of good things to look forward to this year.

Really, we don't have the luxury of looking past this year anyway. Besides, it would be silly if we tried, because while I don't believe the 500 is going to be the most important race in the history of mankind or anything like that, I think it's going to be a big deal, and hopefully the cornerstone of a fantastic season.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Green/White/Checker equals ultimate sellout(?)

With Randy Bernard's State of IndyCar address coming later today, I've seen thoughts and ideas thrown about as to how to improve the series and to make it more appealing to the fans. Which in turn would drive up attendance and TV viewership while making all of us who have stood tall in the bad times very happy.

Some I'm OK with, but one that I don't is the idea that I've seen thrown around lately of adopting green/white/checker finishes instead of having races finish under yellow.

My opinion on that is simple and straightforward: hell no. Let me rephrase way in hell.

I'm all for doing everything possible to make the sport and the races more exciting and fan-friendly, but never, ever at the expense of compromising the integrity of the competition. If a race's scheduled distance is 200, 300 or 500 miles, the race ends when the first driver completes that distance.

What mainly gets lost here is that at it's core a race is a competition. It's no different than a baseball, football or basketball game. A game in any of those sports isn't extended in order to provide more "excitement" to the fans...what happens in nine innings, 60 minutes or 48 minutes is what it is.

Sure, these other sports have overtime, but that is in the event of a tie after regulation has completed. Since there are no ties in racing, why would we need to go extra time in order to determine a winner?

Like lots of sports fans, I've been to crappy games. I've seen a 10-0 baseball game or watched a football or basketball team win by 30 points. I've even watched guys win golf tournaments by 10 strokes. Is it exciting? No, but you don't manipulate the outcome of the event in order to provide that to the people watching.

That's really what a green/white/checker is, manipulating the outcome of a race so that people are sent home happy. In sports it just doesn't work that way. Some games suck, it just happens. It sucks when we go to a race or invest our day watching it on TV and the race finishes under caution, but just like any other sport, it isn't a good enough reason to alter the finish.

It's also not fair to the guys (or ladies) who push their cars to the limit and are the first ones to cross the line after the scheduled distance, only to be told they have to go further to earn their win. Unless they caused said yellow, it's not their fault that someone else screwed up.

And really, in open wheel cars it's not practical. At places like Indy or Texas, an accident at high speed is typically very violent and strews a large debris field all over the racing surface. Often it takes 10-15 laps to clean it up. So if a caution comes out with five laps to go, it might be 10 laps into "overtime" before the final two-lap sprint would even happen. That sets up plenty of variables, especially in terms of fuel management, that would possibly cause issues.

Red flagging isn't an option. That should only be used when something happens where it isn't possible to continue the race safely, such as rain or an issue with the track, fencing or walls/SAFER barriers.

No doubt the fan should always come first, but when that green flag falls it's game on. This isn't the movies, where we always have a happy ending. Sometimes our favorite driver wins, sometimes they lose and sometimes the finish of a race isn't what we want it to be. Again, that's sports.

Maybe we are too used to rebooting things, hitting the reset button or taking something out and shining it up before we try it again. But we have to realize that more than anything, a green/white/checker blurs the line between sports and entertainment. When we start messing with the game, we start heading in that direction, and to me that just isn't a place where we want to go.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why is Luck A Bad Thing?

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway posted a great video of the 1961 duel between Eddie Sachs and A.J. Foyt. Great stuff:

Apologies for the formatting issues. I promise I'll do better next time!

Anyway, I watched the video and couple of times and here is what got me thinking...A.J. Foyt is one of (if not the) best race drivers who ever lived. But do you know that three of his record four wins came as the direct result of another driver's misfortune very late in the race?

1961--Sachs leads by close to 30 seconds and pits with a tire issue. Foyt leads the last three laps to win his first 500.

1967--Parnelli Jones has a bearing go bad in his revolutionary turbine engine. Foyt takes the lead with four laps to go to win for the third time, driving through the mayhem of a multi-car wreck to take the checkered flag.

1977--Gordon Johncock loses a crankshaft with just over 30 miles to go, and Foyt rolls to his fourth and final win.

Mind you, none of this takes away what Foyt accomplished at the Speedway. All of that stands alone, and more than likely always will. But the point I'm trying to make is that any (or all) of those races, had Foyt won them today, would be considered "lucky" instead of great.

I consider the classic definition of luck -- when preparation meets opportunity -- to be the right one. A.J. earned all of those wins because he was in the proper time and place, his incredible skill put him in the position to win, and in the end was the first driver to complete the 500 miles. How that came about, to me, matters little.

About the only thing where pure, unadulterated blind fortune exists is winning the lottery and getting a hole-in-one in golf. The former because the odds are so astronomical, and the latter because I have played for 35 years and don't have one, while a 95-year-old woman who has played for six months aces a 120-yard hole with a driver. The sun shines on you, that's all there is to it. Yes I'm bitter.

Tangent aside, our sports culture now is based so much on style points that how you win is just as important as the fact you won. For example, had this year's 500 finished under green, would winner Dario Franchitti have run out of fuel? It is a possibility, and had that happened, Dan Wheldon may have snuck in and picked up his second career win.

If we had seen that scenario unfold, the guess is here that Wheldon's win would have been downplayed, a product of luck more than anything else.

Wait a a guy driving hard for 495-plus miles to get to second place takes advantage of an opponent's mistake, and he should be criticized for it? In the world we live in, yes.

I've heard so many "if this had (or hadn't) have happened, so-and-so would have won..." excuses I'm sick of them. Sure, had those things happened the outcome may have been different, but that's sports and it sure as heck is life.

Sports is about injuries, bad calls, weather, schedules, and people's mistakes and misfortunes. Like an EA Sports commercial once said, it all started when someone said "I'm better than you and I can prove it." And for however long that has gone on, getting a break that leads to a win has been part of it. Because to win, no matter what, you still have to execute when the time comes.

This is another interesting list:

In the history of the race, a driver who has led with 20 or fewer laps to go has failed to win the race 35 times. Let me say that again...thirty-five times! Nine of those times a driver gave up the lead for whatever reason with less than five laps to go. So are those wins any less in significance than dominant performances from guys like Billy Arnold (led a record 198 laps in 1930), Bill Vukovich (195 laps, 1953) or Al Unser Sr. (190, 1970)? Not a chance.

A win is a win is a win. How it happened is sometimes fun to talk about, but it should never take away from the accomplishment itself. With few exceptions, every driver who has ever won the race has had something go their way over the course of the 500 miles to have made it possible.

It used to be they were just called winners. But I guess now that isn't always enough.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Frenetic Friday -- Vacation Edition

I'm heading to Florida and Disney World for the weekend. So in honor of that a little old-school IRL action at Walt Disney World Speedway. Too bad the Indy Racing Experience is sold out!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Greg Moore and Indy...What Did We Miss Out On?

I don’t know why this is, because my interest in racing was waning a bit at the time, but Greg Moore’s death in October, 1999, hit me about as hard as the sport losing a driver ever has in my lifetime.

I’m sure part of it was the fact he was only 24 years old, that the way he lost his life was so violent (his car was pulling 154gs at the time of impact) and that a career was full of so much promise was quickly ended at the exit of turn 2 on a Halloween afternoon in Fontana, Calif.

Moore was a great talent, he was as popular with his fellow drivers as he was the fans, and his upcoming move to Penske Racing to start the 2000 season was going to propel him to the next level of the sport. With Penske’s backing, and the fact that Roger himself was going to call his races, Moore was more than likely set to become a flat-out dominant driver.

One of the biggest shames is that he never drove in the Indy 500. Given his success on ovals, Indy was probably a perfect fit for him.

In a John Oreovicz piece that appeared on in October, 2009, here’s what Dario Franchitti had to say about Moore’s talents:

"I think Greg was the best guy I ever raced on an oval," Dario said. "He was unbelievable in those [CART] cars. You can slide a modern [IRL] Indy car around a bit; there's a certain sort of yaw you can drive it in, where it's not too much of a problem. But the old Champ Cars, they would slide, and if they slid once and you didn't catch it, if you allowed it to snap again, it would bite you. And Greg could just hang that thing out there all day! He just drove the thing on the edge, and I don't know of anybody else that did that."

It is that kind of style and bravery that would have made him tough at Indy, but unfortunately his path didn’t cross with the Brickyard. His first season in CART, 1996, was the year of the acrimonious split with the Indy Racing League, a divide that wasn’t first crossed again until 2000 when Chip Ganassi brought his team back – and won – the 500 with Juan Pablo Montoya.

Had CART continued coming to the 500 during his career, I think Moore would have cashed in on one of what looked like four opportunities he would have had at the Speedway. His first year, his Players Forsythe team was the defending champion, so that would have given him at least a decided schematic advantage (to use a Charlie Weis phrase).

Plus, he won on an oval in each of his four seasons, and each one (Nazareth, Milwaukee, Rio, Michigan and Homestead) has its own distinct configuration and personality, meaning he had a good idea how to figure out a course and its nuances.

Then you can play the “what if” game. What if Moore had been able to move to Penske and run the 500 under those colors?

Penske brought his crew back in 2001 and saw Helio Castroneves – who was given Moore’s seat after his death -- win his first two starts (2001-02) and Gil de Ferran make it three years in a row in 2003. Adding Sam Hornish’s win in 2006 and Castroneves’ 2009 triumph, and Team Penske has won five of the last 10 races.

That’s the environment in which he would have driven, and Moore’s talent would have done the rest. While it is hard to predict how many years he would have stuck around the series, it’s safe to say he would have run the 500 enough times and contended enough for poles and wins that he would have collected some serious hardware.

It's just unfortunate we didn't have the opportunity to find out.

Monday, January 3, 2011

I Welcome Your Comments (Now)!

Just the other day my little site recorded its 1,000th page view. It's so amazing that there are IndyCar fans all over the world, and that we have a way to share our passions for the sport.

I was curious as to why I'd had so many views and so few comments, since I see some great insight and opinions to posts on other sites. I found out that I had it set for registered IDs only. OK, so I'm not too bright sometimes.

I'm set up to accept comments from everyone, and would love to hear what people have to say. So if you like something, hate it (well, hope that doesn't happen) and want to share, please do. That's what the blog is here for!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"The Most Important Race in History"?

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway released that as its 2011 centennial race slogan, and for a place that understands and reveres history so much, I have to question their decision. (Its cheesiness can be covered elsewhere)

With the positive forward progress the IndyCar series has made recently, it is the most important of the current era, I'll give them that. The series is in a prime position to become relevant once again, and the 500 represents a big piece in restoring IndyCar to national (and to some point international) prominence.

Still, in the 100-year history of the race, one day stands out to me as "important":

Thursday, May 30, 1946

Because of World War II, the 500 had been out of the public eye for five years. With our nation focused on the war effort, and auto racing banned for the duration, the Speedway gates were locked, leaving the grounds neglected and falling into embarrassing disrepair. Weeds were growing out from between the bricks, buildings were falling apart and the facility had been all but forgotten. Even 65 years ago, when the world revolved at a much slower pace, five years was a long time.

When WWII ended, many people believed that the Speedway would eventually be demolished. Fortunately three-time winner Wilbur Shaw had enough faith in the viability of the 500 to want to keep the race alive, and found Tony Hulman to purchase the facility for $750,000 in late 1945.

Who knew what to expect when the month of May rolled around in 1946? The cars were old, the field included 10 rookies and the popular Shaw, a native Hoosier who was one of the more recognizable names in the sport and who had won three of the previous five races, had moved to the business side of the event.

You can only imagine what was on Hulman's mind when he woke up on race day...if he slept at all! In hindsight we can say what he did was brilliant, but that probably wasn't easy to see at the time. Who knew what the day was going to bring? Would the crowds come back? Would the race be able to even approach the popularity it had once enjoyed?

Fortunately, it did. By all accounts, fans were lining up at the gates, as always, when the sun was barely cracking the horizon.
Ralph Hepburn, who started 19th, broke the track record by qualifying at 133 mph and was a full seven mph faster than pole-sitter Cliff Bergere. He likely brought the roar back quickly by charging his Novi to the lead in just 12 laps and staying in front for the next 44 circuits. George Robson dominated the rest of the day, leading 138 laps and eventually winning the race by 44 seconds over Jimmy Jackson and by 12 minutes over third-place Ted Horn.

In the end it was a significant day in a very significant time in the Speedway's history, and began an era of the amazing growth of the 500 in every way imaginable over the next two decades. But the question remains: What if Hulman hadn't come to the rescue in late 1945, and no one else had stepped forward to take over the Speedway? What if the race had been forgotten in the eyes of the public?

What if they put on a race and no one had cared?

If any of that had happened, we wouldn't even be celebrating the race's centennial this year. Instead of the roar of race cars, the air around 16th and Georgetown would more than likely be buzzing with lawn mowers, as people walked out of their homes and cut their grass on the grounds of where a great Speedway had once stood.