Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rubens Barrichello Rumors

There was a lot of great news in IndyCar today, most of it surrounding the official announcement of Justin Wilson to Dale Coyne Racing, where he will be reunited with engineer Bill Pappas, the man he teamed up with to pick up his lone series win at Watkins Glen in 2009. And since good things come in threes DCR also announced that Honda will be the team's engine supplier in 2012.

With another seat still possibly open on that team, are they done? Or is there more big news to come? Paul Tracy has had a couple of things to say on Twitter today. Hmmmm...

But in a bit of "totally random and least expected" news, word got out that Formula 1 veteran Rubens Barrichello will be testing an Indy car for KV Racing at Sebring next week. While it was supposed to be a low key, private test, fellow countryman Tony Kanaan blew the lid off that one on Twitter, and the news was confirmed by many sources, most notably AP writer Jenna Fryer.

Because Barrichello does not have an F1 ride next year, IndyCar Nation is blowing up with speculation as to what it might mean. The easiest one is that Barrichello and Kanaan are friends and he is going to do a little test hopping in the new car to help shake it down. Which given the developmental process he probably went through on more than a few occasions in F1 makes it a logical guess.

But that one is boring. I prefer the one that has Rubens making the jump to IndyCar and driving at least a partial schedule for KV. He still seems to have the itch to drive and with seemingly no options in F1, it would be an option for him to move to the series in some way, shape or form this season.
If that were the case, it would be an incredible get for KV Racing, not to mention the series as a whole. Even at age 39 and coming off of two sub-par seasons in F1, the man can drive and given time to get comfortable in a car would become an immediate threat to win on a road or street course.

In 19 Formula 1 seasons, he won 11 times and posted 68 podium finishes in a record 326 starts. As recently as 2009 he won two Grands Prix and finished third in the standings, so this isn't someone on the downside of his career.

Obviously there would be some hurdles to cross. It would be a big change for him, especially given I'm going to guess he has never even seen the inside of an oval track, let alone driven one. At the same time, he's also gone on record as saying his wife won't let him drive Indy cars, so perhaps if he did join the series he wouldn't race the ovals.

But in the end, it would just be a really cool thing. I loved it back in the day when drivers would venture over from F1 and compete here. Of course, the two biggest names that come to mind are Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, but several other drivers made the trip over and represented themselves well.

Not to mention, perhaps his participation will spur more interest in the series and even give it a little more credibility. You never know, but if it gets people talking about IndyCar, can that be a bad thing?

Even if all that comes from this is a couple of days of testing and kicks and giggles between two old friends, it's still fun to talk about. And if it works out it would be another great storyline for the season this year, which all of the sudden is setting up to potentially become very interesting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Danica A No-Go for The 500

Danica Patrick answered one "big" question yesterday when she announced that she will be driving a Sprint Cup car instead of an Indy car on Memorial Day weekend. So ended a lot of speculation as to whether or not she would be back to try the 500 as a one-off effort.

Previously the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte was not on her 10-race Cup schedule, but financing came through and she and her team made a "business decision" to stay on the Cup side. However, she did not rule out the possibility of doing the "double" and running both races in 2013 and beyond.

It was the right thing to do, and the timing was right as well. Had she held out on making a decision the question would have followed her to each stop of the Nationwide (and Sprint Cup) series, and would have more than likely spilled over into the IndyCar series. Now it is out of the way and more than likely a non-issue for everyone involved.

I also think that having "the decision" out of the way will only help in her further development as a stock car driver. Though she did an admirable job considering the circumstances, jumping back and forth between the two series last year probably hurt her in both places in the long run. Regardless of whether or not she said she was focused on the task at hand depending on the race weekend, there had to be some sort of effect on her performance because focusing on IndyCar hindered her stock car development, and focusing on stock cars took time away from her IndyCar effort.

Plus, I think like with many of the other drivers who have left the series it is time to just let it all go. Let's face it...Danica isn't coming back. If Sam Hornish through all of his struggles still enjoys the competition (and the money) in the stock car world, the only way Danica would come back would be if 1) she was a total flop (not gonna happen) or 2) she ran out of funding (a la Dario Franchitti). That will sure as hell NEVER happen. A lot of people at a lot of levels are invested in her stock car future, and her popularity ensures her to always have enough resources at her disposal.

I guess what is left on the IndyCar side is to see what effect is felt in terms of interest in the series. Sure, Danica moving on will change that in some way, but I don't think it will be as bad as it might have been in years past. The series is beginning to stand on its own two feet and as time goes on hopefully the people that Danica brought into the sport stay because they like the product.

Her departure also gives the series a chance to do something it should have done long ago, which is to promote the other personalities and storylines that exist in the series. All of the sudden, IndyCar has a new and fresh generation of drivers who in one way or another appeal to everyone. That may not have been the case in the past, but drivers like Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe and Simona De Silvestro (among others) are people that can inject a lot of interest in the sport if the series markets them wisely. I'm not saying that was Danica's fault, but the series hitched their wagon to her and a lot of other people with great stories were left behind.

Though I have been critical of Danica in the past, I hope she does well in NASCAR, for herself and to quiet the critics that say a jump from open wheel can't be done. More than anyone, she is in the best position, she is with solid teams who have gobs of money and plenty of resources. If she fails it will be based on her driving and not a lack of funding or other circumstances that have held other open wheel drivers back.

While I will follow her in Cup I guess the thing that in a way "disappoints" me is that she had the chance to win the Indy 500 someday. While I feel like she was an average driver at other places in the series, I always thought she had some sort of connection with the Speedway, as six top-10 finishes shows.

But if she can live with walking away from that, I guess the rest of us can, too.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- All About Gary B

Writing my post last week about the year 1972 really made me give a lot of thought about Gary Bettenhausen, who among the drivers I have followed over the last 40 years might have had one of the most star-crossed careers of them all at Indy.
Gary made 21 starts in the 500 between 1968-93 and is one of only one of seven drivers to make the field 20 times, but is one of just two in that group (George Snider) to have never won. Along the way he had three top-5 finishes, but the same number of finishes in 31st place or worse.
When he came to Indy he was an accomplished driver in the USAC circuit, and showed he was ready for a move to the big show in 1968 when he qualified a respectable 22nd and finished 24th when he dropped out of the race after completing 43 laps.
In the years that followed he won two national sprint car championships (1969, ’71) and in 1971 finished 10th in the 500. That led to a spot with Penske Racing and a chance to drive a McLaren at the Speedway in 1972.
Gary in his 1972 McLaren at Milwaukee/
As I mentioned in my feature, that was his best chance to win the race, and he looked well on his way after leading 138 of the first 175 laps, including a span where he led 104 consecutive circuits. Sitting on the point and a good lead with less than 75 miles to go, his engine began going south and he retired from the race to finish in 14th place. He then followed that up with a fifth place the next year.
Not long after was when his career took a turn for the worse. Driving in a sprint car race in July of 1974 at Syracuse, Gary suffered serious injuries when his car left the track and crashed into an old concession stand. While he recovered from most of his injuries, he suffered serious nerve damage that left him unable to lift his left arm.
He soon lost his ride with Penske as well.
"I'm positive I would have won the Speedway at least once by now, had I continued to drive for Penske," Bettenhausen said in a 1991 LA Times article. "He's certainly proved that his cars are capable, and I know I am. But I was just young and dumb at the time. I wanted to race every weekend if I could. I wasn't ready to settle down and race only nine or 10 times a year."

Even with his mangled arm Gary’s career continued, though not on the arc that it was on prior to his accident. He won a USAC Silver Crown title in 1980, the same year he started 32nd and raced to a 3rd-place finish at Indy, then won another Silver Crown title in 1983. He later finished 5th in the 500 in 1987.

Nearing 50, Bettenhausen had begun focusing on Indy-only efforts, and from 1989-93 raced for John Menard at the wheel of his powerful, yet unreliable, Buick powerplants. Driving the colorful Menards livery, in 1991 he was the fastest qualifier at 224.460 mph, but started 13th overall as a second-day qualifier, then followed that up by starting fifth on the grid at 228.930 the next year before ending his career with a 17th-place finish in 1993.

Gary could be fast, and he could finish well, but it never all came together for him. Only once did he complete the entire 500 miles, and was running at the finish just five times. Eleven times he retired due to mechanical problems, including 1989 when his Buick suffered a bent valve shortly after the engine was fired to start the race and he never even took the green flag. In all, he averaged just 113 laps per start during his career.

Still, he had a solid, if not spectacular career at Indy, was a multiple-time national champion in midgets and Silver Crown cars, and was elected to the National Sprint Car (1993) and National Midget (1998) Halls of Fame.

But if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or auto racing gods owed one to anybody, it would be the Bettenhausens. Between family patriarch Tony, Gary and younger brother Tony Jr., the family combined for 46 starts at the Brickyard and came away empty.

Along with that, the family suffered more than its share of tragedy.

Tony, one of the sport's more popular drivers and one of the best dirt track drivers in the country in the 1950s, made 14 starts at Indy and finished second in 1955 and had back-to-back 4th-place finishes in 1958-59. Entering the month of May in 1961, he felt he had his best chance to win but sadly was killed in practice while testing a car for friend Paul Russo. Still, last year he was named one of the Greatest 33 drivers in the race's history and belongs to three different racing Halls of Fame.

Tony Jr. was a solid driver who made 11 starts in the 500 and later became a car owner, but lost his life in a 2000 plane crash. A third brother, Merle, lost his right arm racing Indy cars at Michigan in 1972 and retired from racing two years later.

The sport gave a lot to the Bettenhausens, but it took a heck of a lot away, too. Despite never tasting victory at the Speedway, the family left a proud legacy of success that can never be denied, and Gary plays a big part in that legacy.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

If They Taught A "Racing History 101" Class...

...I found a couple of articles that would be required reading. In doing some research for a post about Gary Bettenhausen (that will appear tomorrow), I came across an excellent two-part series that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in May, 1991 that focused on the Bettenhausen and Vukovich families.

I love great writing, and it seems that with the demise of newspapers it becomes more difficult to find. Even though the pieces are long, they are worth the read as they discuss the triumphs and tragedies of at one time were people from two of America's more prominent racing families.

Part 1


Part 2

There are people who are fortunate enough to write (like me) and there are people who are true writers, like Mike Kupper, the man who did the storytelling here. I think it is cool to come across something like this and hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hinch Has Found A Home, and So Has Tagliani

It was probably one of the worst-kept secrets in IndyCar over the last couple of weeks, but Andretti Autosport officially announced that James Hinchcliffe will be driving the team's Go Daddy-sponsored car this season.

Good move, no make that, great move. Hinch, who drove for Newman Haas last season and had planned to do the same in 2012 until the team shut down operations a few weeks ago, is the perfect guy to take this seat, which was of course originally intended for Dan Wheldon, who had signed a contract to drive the No. 27 car the day he lost his life at Las Vegas.

Hinch at Indy...thanks IndyCar
He more than established his credentials as a driver as he posted seven top-10 finishes and ended up the season 12th in the points standings, good enough to squeak past J.R. Hildebrand for the series' Rookie of the Year honors. Not only that, he appeals to Go Daddy because of his outgoing personality and his comfort with social media.

While there were several drivers who would have done well in that seat (I would love to see Justin Wilson with a top-line team), I always thought that Hinchcliffe should have been on the short list to become Danica Patrick's replacement. Moving to one of the power teams in the series immediately makes him a threat to win races and stand on podiums, no doubt, and his higher profile will also make race weekends a lot more entertaining since he should run up front and be in front of the media more often too.

And, most importantly, I think his personality is a good fit for the team, as his laid-back style will mesh well with Marco Andretti (who I think needs to make another step forward himself) and Ryan Hunter-Reay. That kind of environment should be a good opportunity to flourish.

Also finalizing his plans was Alex Tagliani, who wrapped up his deal with Bryan Herta Autosport. It has certainly been an up and down last couple of years for Tagliani, who seemed settled for a long future with Fazzt only to see that organization fizzle, won the pole for Sam Schmidt at Indy before closing the season at BHA. He finished 15th in the final IndyCar standings and also placed second in a NASCAR Nationwide event at Montreal.

Tagliani has proven he can go fast, and given that BHA is a factory team for Lotus he will have plenty of resources to do that at his disposal.

While there is still plenty of silly season action left, it's good to see another couple of drivers settle into their plans for 2012. Hopefully Wilson and Oriol Servia, among others, get a phone call soon too.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- 1972

There are many arguments as to what represents the "golden age" of the Indy 500, where the race and its talent level, excitement and innovation was at its peak. For the generation of fans prior to me (my golden age was the 80s and 90s, but more on that someday), many point to the late 60s and early 70s as a time where the Speedway was shining in all of its glory.

No doubt, big changes went on during that period. Once the move was made to rear-engine cars, speeds skyrocketed and we began seeing some of the first pieces of equipment that utilized aerodynamics to help the car be more streamlined.

By the time May of 1972 rolled around, the people that design the cars had learned that the use of wings at the front and rear of the car went a long way to helping the car punch a bigger hole in the air while using downforce to keep it on the track at higher speeds. With bolt-on wings allowed for the first time and little in the way of regulation, the bigger the wing the better, which made the cars go faster but also added to the danger involved, as Jim Malloy died three days after a practice crash.

Qualifying was like nothing the Speedway had ever seen before. For the first (and still only) time in the track's history, two 10 mph increments were broken on the same day.

Joe Leonard put Peter Revson's 1971 record speed of 178.696 on ice with a four-lap average of 185.223, which was then broken three more times, the last by Bobby Unser, who clinched the pole at an amazing speed of 195.940 with a fast lap of 196.678.

In the end, Revson's record was broken by the ENTIRE 1972 field, as every one of the 33 drivers qualified faster than the previous year's pole speed.

When race day rolled around, Unser picked up his dominance right were he left off, piloting his Dan Gurney Eagle to the front for the first 30 laps of the race before retiring with an ignition issue. Gary Bettenhausen, driving for Roger Penske in what in hindsight was his best opportunity to win the race, led 138 of the next 144 laps before his engine went sour as well.

Jerry Grant took over for the next 12 laps, then pitted for fuel and with his tank dry borrowed some from Unser's pit and was subsequently penalized. That left the door open for Mark Donohue, who had patiently driven up front all day and jumped to the lead with just 13 laps to go. The Brown University-trained engineer took it from there to give Penske the first of his 15 wins.

Donohue, named one of the race's Greatest 33 drivers, averaged a race-record 162.962 miles an hour, a mark that stood for 14 years. His No. 66 McLaren is one of the sleeker and more popular cars of the era, a gorgeous machine that looks just as spectacular in the museum today as it did 40 years ago.

Al Unser, who entered the day looking to win his third straight 500, was second while Leonard placed third. In a strange twist, five of the top-10 finishers started from the 19th position (Unser) or further back, with Jimmy Caruthers and Cale Yarborough driving from the last row to finish ninth and 10th, respectively.

Below is my favorite YouTube video from that day. It was shot by a then-11-year-old boy who was seeing the race for the second time. Besides really liking the accompaning music, I relate to that video a lot because I was 10 when I went to the Speedway for the first time and love to think about how this race was viewed through his eyes.

The last minute of the video is pure gold, showing Donohue pulling into Victory Lane and the subsequent celebration. Good stuff.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Geaux Beaux

A racing series hiring a new chief steward shouldn't be big news, but unfortunately the controversies (and I won't rehash them) that Brian Barnhart brought on over the last couple of years made it just that for IndyCar. Those decisions cost Barhart his job, and Beaux Barfield was tapped Wednesday as his replacement.

The 40-year-old Barfield comes from the ALMS series and has an extensive background in open wheel racing, both as an official and a driver. That in itself will lend respect and credibility to his job, something that I believe Barnhart lacked, especially as time went on.

Unfortunately, that leaves Barfield with some huge shoes to fill...and not in a good way. A lot of work needs to be done to clean up the rulebook and restore faith in the management of the races, not only in the eyes of the drivers and teams, but especially the fans. I think a lot of decisions made last year were very disheartening at times because some of them (such as the restart in the rain at New Hampshire) caught the public eye and made the series look really bad.

Barfield plans to clean up a lot of "gray areas", which is a good thing. I believe one place he should start is in the enforcement of infractions. As in, action "A" gets you penalty "B", with no exceptions.
Penalties need to have the same consequence every time. The only gray area that should exist is in determining the infraction. Just like how you could call holding on pretty much every play in the NFL, deciding to call that foul is up to the referee's discretion. However, when the flag comes out of his pocket, it is 10 yards. Same concept here, an infraction yields the same penalty. EVERY TIME!

No, you can never get a hyper-competitive group of people to believe they are all being treated fairly, but drawing a line and firmly standing there is a good start. Let's hope he is able to do that.