Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jim Rathmann, 1928-2011

The Indy 500 lost one of its legends today as 1960 winner Jim Rathmann passed away at the age of 83. Rathmann was the oldest living 500 winner (Parnelli Jones now assumes that honor) and was one of the few drivers in the race's history to live 50 years beyond his victory.

Many long-time fans of the 500 consider Rathmann's battle with Rodger Ward to be one of the greatest in the race's history. Starting in the middle of the front row, Rathmann took his first lead on lap 25 and eventually led the race 12 times for a race-high 100 laps on the day.

But that is only half the story. Beginning at lap 123, Rathmann and Ward, the 1959 and '62 winner, swapped the lead 12 times over the course of the next 70-plus laps. Rathmann finally took the lead for good with four laps to go when Ward's right front tire began to wear away to power his way to the win by just over 12 seconds.

What is even more amazing is the fact that the total number of lead changes -- 29 -- is a record that still stands today!

By all accounts Rathmann was a kind man who behind the wheel of a race car was as tough and competitive as they came. His victory capped a four-year run (1957-60) that saw him finish second, fifth, second and first. In 1957 he started 32nd and worked his way up through the field to eventually finish as the runner-up to Sam Hanks, one of four times he started in the seventh row or further back and raced his way to a top-10 finish. In 14 starts he completed 2,320 laps, leading a total of 153 circuits and had three seconds to go along with his win.

Rathmann was inducted into the Motosports Hall of Fame of America in 2007 and as part of the Indy 500's Centennial Celebration was named one of the race's Greatest 33 drivers.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Frenetic Friday -- A Street Race in Chicago?

Quick, name the two (at least by my count) professional sports in this country that no longer regularly utilize the Chicago market.

If you answered the PGA Tour and IndyCar, you are at least partly right! And I think that both of them are crazy!

Hard to believe that any sport would bypass the third-largest television market -- not to mention one of the more rabid sports towns in the country -- but with Joliet no longer in the picture, it's true. And it's a shame, because I think with the right variables the people of Chicago can and do support racing.

So I was thinking, with the addition of a race in China and discussion of other street races (which I can live with so long as ovals are emphasized after 2012), how come no one has ever thought of running a street race here?

I'm biased, I'll admit it. I live here and I love the city, especially in the summertime. Yes, more often than not we have to deal with gridlock and bad baseball, but the downtown is vibrant in the summer time, and the Grant Park/Lake Michigan area is amazing. I think it would be a perfect backdrop for a race.

I can just picture the cars screaming down Lakeshore Drive around the east side of the park, making a couple of turns and coming back on Michigan Avenue, in front of all that amazing architecture. If they were to utilize Roosevelt Rd. they would have a neat little elevation change, and the museum campus would provide a couple of tight, tricky turns. Heck, they could even go Batman/Blues Brothers on us and use Lower Wacker Drive for a stretch (kidding! waayyyy too narrow!).

I would imagine it would draw fairly well, anything downtown during the summer does. When a million people show up to watch the Air and Water Show, I'm guessing a lot of people would love to watch the cars zoom around such a cool setting. And with so many companies calling Chicago home, it would probably be a big draw in terms of corporate sponsorship and support.

Yeah, I think it would be pretty freaking amazing. I know, it would probably cost a boatload of money, and some of the streets would need some pretty massive renovations to have it happen, but for this Chicago (area) guy, it would be a very, very cool thing. I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

IndyCar is Going to China

The series announced today that IndyCar will race in Qingdao, China next Aug. 19 on a street course through the downtown of the city, with hopes that a permanent road course will be built sometime in the future. According to the Indy Star, Randy Bernard said that racing in China was a priority with sponsors, which was why the event is happening.

I get that from a business standpoint. A race in China is good for the sponsors involved, as well as for further raising the awareness of the series in that region of the world. Plus, it gives the drivers exposure to a large fanbase that has never seen them before...which actually may work out very well.

I just hope that they learned some lessons from the Japan race this year in the way it is presented back to us in the States. I know that the situation in Motegi was different due to the move to the road course because of the earthquake, as well as the knowledge beforehand that it was the series' final race at the venue. But the racing was bad, there were lots of empty seats and the TV ratings were horrible, which to many added to the running joke that some people perceive the series.

If they are going to take the series so far from home, they have to do it right. They need to build a course that will make for some great racing, they need to promote the hell out of it so that a large crowd shows up, and lastly, the TV issue needs to be addressed and somehow fixed.

How? Hard to say. With what will probably be a 12-13 hour time difference to most of the country during the summer, it's a little difficult to work out. The only other racing series that deals with time differences like this is Formula 1, but with a global audience and a more rabid following it isn't much of an issue. People will get out of bed and tune in at 2 a.m. for an F1 race, they won't do it for IndyCar. Motegi proved that when just 112,000 of us stayed up past midnight to watch it.

Someone is going to have to come up with a solution because the series can't afford to have throwaway races like this when it comes to TV viewership. In and around Qingdao, the race may be a total success, and it is very important for IndyCar to have as much of a global cover as it can. But if they put on a race and no one watches, does anyone care?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Amazing Alex Zanardi

A little over 10 years ago, Alex Zanardi lost the lower half of both of his legs in one of the more horrific accidents in racing history.

Today, he won the handcycle division of the New York Marathon.

If the man doesn't inspire you, nothing can.

At one time, Zanardi was one of the best, not to mention most exciting, drivers in the world. His daring moves on the racetrack are stuff of legend, and many of them haven't been duplicated since. Zanardi won 12 races in 1997-98 while winning back-to-back CART championships, and one of his enduring legacies to the sport is his post-race celebratory donuts at the start-finish line.

His accident in September, 2001 may have been the end of his high-level racing career, but it was the start of a new life that he embraced with his usual vigor and enthusiasm. Instead of feeling sorry for himself or lamenting the end of his successful (and more likely lucrative) career, Zanardi didn't see his own limitations, instead he worked at figuring out how he could make the most of his situation.

Within two years he was driving race cars with hand controls, and since 2005 has made 105 starts in touring cars, winning four times.

He took up handcycling (basically a three-wheeled bike that is powered by hand cranks) in 2007 and has won several races, with the hope of representing Italy in the 2012 Paralympics. If it has wheels, the guy can still make it go fast...I know if I raced handcycles and I were lining up for a race and Alex Zanardi rolled up next to me, I would probably conceed I was racing for second place.

The most amazing thing? If you do a Google search of Alex Zanardi photos you almost always see him with a smile on his face. For everything he has been through, he still sees the best in everything and still sees life as a gift, and something to be lived.

Like Greg Moore, Zanardi never raced at Indy, but if he had it's a good bet his face would be on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Still, he is an amazing ambassador to the sport and is a reminder to all of us that nothing is truly impossible.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Team Penske Stays Intact for 2012

Team Penske officially announced Thursday that all three of its drivers: Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves, will return to the team next year.

That is hardly a surprise, for sure, because short of sponsor issues there really wasn't a reason for any of the seats to change hands, despite what many consider a less-than-Penske-type season from two of the three participants.

Of course, Power threw down his second straight outstanding campaign, winning six times and finishing second in points to Dario Franchitti for the second year in a row. A master at road and street courses, Power finally scored his first win on an oval at Texas, but low finishes (and some bad luck) at Iowa, Toronto and Kentucky were his undoing.

Castroneves, on the other hand, had his worst season in his 12 with the organization, finishing 11th in points, including nine finishes of 17th or worse, and failing to win a race for the first time this century. He also was at fault in several incidents early in the season, and spent a lot of time either apologizing or explaining his actions. But what made this season very un-Helio-like was the fact he was an absolute non-factor at Indianapolis. After qualifying 16th he drove around in the back of the pack all day and eventually finished a lap down in 17th place. It was the first time in his career that he finished the race but was not on the lead lap.

Briscoe finished the season sixth in points and posted four podium finishes in a season that looked worse on paper than it really was. Several of his poor early-season efforts were the result of incidents that weren't of his doing (like at Birmingham and Indy) and he might have only trailed Graham Rahal in the bad luck category in a couple of other races.

It's strange that Briscoe has been on the hot seat virtually since he started racing with Penske. It just seems like people put him as the odd-man-out whenever the discussion of a seat coming open on that team arises, even though he has seven wins in his tenure. Perhaps it is because his efforts at Indy have been disappointing, and next to championships a Penske driver is judged on their performace at the Brickyard. Who knows.

Still, what we do know is that Roger Penske likes continutity with his organizations, and more than anything that is reflected in the team staying together. Since the 2000 season, Penske Racing has employed just five full-time drivers: the current team, Sam Hornish Jr. (left for NASCAR) and Gil de Ferran (retired). He doesn't like change and tries hard to not play musical chairs with his drivers, which is a testament to his vetting process in the first place.

It's obvious that his team brings what he wants to the table. Power is working his way up the list of the world's finest drivers (figuring out ovals would make him an absolute superstar), you have to think Castroneves' season was an outlier, and even if it weren't, his Indy performance was, and there isn't any reason to believe he won't capture that magic again one -- or even two -- more times. I would guess that getting his fourth or fifth Indy wins in a Penske livery is important to the Captain. Briscoe's contribution to the team is that he shows flashes of brilliance and when his confidence is high he can compete with anyone.

Not to mention all are a sponsor's dream. They drive well, conduct themselves with professionalism and class and are bright and intelligent. And in this day and age of the sport that is almost as important as performance on the track.

If Roger Penske has proven anything in his four decades as an owner, it's that he doesn't miss very often. And with the current lineup, it doesn't look like he will miss in 2012, either.

Frenetic Friday: Post-Season Awards

The tragedy in Las Vegas no doubt finished the season on a down note (and rightfully so). With a little time and healing it's been good to step back and reflect on the 2011 season. All-in-all, it wasn't too bad for what many considered a "throwaway" year due to the final season of using the current equipment. There was some outstanding racing at many of the stops and while the season points pretty much played out the way we all thought, there was a nice mix of winners amongst drivers and teams.

So here are a few highlights:

Driver of the Year -- Dario Franchitti. I don't necessarily think that this award should always go to the series champion, and in this instance it was really a tossup between Dario and Will Power based on Power's unbelievable dominance on road and street courses. Still, Franchitti is just more consistent, outside of fuel issues and Indy and his crash at Loudon, he never finished lower than eighth. Yes he got a couple of favorable calls and yes he has the backing of the most powerful team in the series, but at the same time you still have to go out and drive and get the job done, which he did. No I don't like his whining, which thankfully seemed to lessen as the season went on, but right here, right now if you look at his ability to drive ovals, road and street courses well, he could be considered one of the Top 10 drivers in the world.

Drive of the Year -- Dan Wheldon, Indy. From my view in the stands it was about as perfect of a race as you could ever drive. In my mind, the only time you have to be leading the race is when you cross the finish line, so the 900 feet he was in front was more than enough. Fittingly, Dan broke a 99-year-old record for fewest laps led by a winner, and made it his own because it can be equaled but never broken.

Race of the Year -- Indy/Iowa/Kentucky. Yes, a three-way tie. Really, how do you decide? Indy had Wheldon's unlikely win, Iowa had an awesome 25-lap battle between Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan and Kentucky featured a similar fight between Franchitti and Ed Carpenter that gave both Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Racing their first-ever wins. Hopefully the first of a few for both!

Rookie of the Year -- James Hinchcliffe. Yeah, this one was obvious. J.R. Hildebrand had a couple of great finishes but Hinch was consistent and along with teammate Oriol Servia (more on him in a minute) brought Newman-Haas back from nowhere. Major props for that.

Most Underrated Driver -- Oriol Servia. I mentioned in a post back in the spring that when you look at the guy's record in CART/IndyCar I couldn't figure out why he didn't have a ride. He got one this year and roped in a solid sponsor in Telemundo and made the most of it, finishing fourth in the season standings, leading a lot of laps at Indy and posting three podiums and six top-5 finishes. I hope it works out that he sticks around the series for a while, he is a consistently good driver who is also intelligent and likeable, and represents the sport very well.

Most Overrated Driver -- Helio Castroneves. This absolutely pains me to say this, because I have been a fan of Helio's for a long, long time. But the fact of the matter is, when you drive for Team Penske you should not finish 17th or worse nine times during the season. He spent the first quarter of the season crashing into everyone and everything, and was a total non-factor at Indy, which was a surprise to everyone.

I probably could add a few more to this list, but my trophy budget only goes so far. I think 2012 promises to be a great season, and it can't get here soon enough!