Saturday, June 16, 2012

Friday At Milwaukee Wrap-Up

I've officially taken off my media credential (it hangs on my rear-view mirror for tomorrow) and wanted to throw down a few thoughts from my fan perspective. I'll also throw in a couple of predictions at the bottom -- wait, should I mention this now and have you just skip my ramblings and get to the good stuff? Yeah, I'll take my chances.

*Believe it or not...Friday was my first trip to the Mile, and my first time in Milwaukee in 22 years. Actually, it's the first oval other than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I've seen IndyCar racing. I've been to Chicagoland of course but those were for NASCAR Nationwide events.

One thing I noticed is it looked a lot different than on TV. The track itself is smaller but the grandstands are a lot bigger than I imagined them to be. It's a very nice facility for sure. The coolest part is that you only have to walk 250-300 yards across the infield to go from the front to the back straight. I ended up following the fenceline all the way around the track to get as many different vantage points as I could. One great place to watch is the entry to turn 1. The cars are diving into that corner at about 175 mph but it looks a hell of a lot faster close up. Not Indy fast, but quick.

Across the way in the grandstands, you don't have to get too far up to be able to see all the way around. I hoofed it all the way up to the top of the 400 level during the Indy Lights race and that is a fantastic view. My seats for the race are in turn 1 and there should be plenty of action there.

The line the drivers are taking through the turns is interesting. I spoke with Pippa Mann (more on that later) and she described it as a more road course-type line. Dario Franchitti mentioned that many drivers are going up a little higher because the darker asphalt on the lower line had lost grip and it was more necessary to take a different line.

*In terms of the race, it will be all about getting the mechanical settings right (gears, springs, etc) and saving the tires. The cars are maxed-out downforce-wise and all of that is necessary. In fact, Franchitti mentioned that he didn't believe anyone would try to trim their cars to find more speed, especially given they are flat-out all the way around as it is.

What is amazing is how the Mile is close to being as sensitive as IMS when it comes to a car's setup. As is typical, a bit of cloud cover helped the drivers find more speed, but at the same time a couple of times the wind came up and seemed to create a festival of rev limiters for a couple of drivers.

I watched qualifying from the grandstand with Zachary Houghton of IndyCar Advocate (and his wife Theresa) and a bit of a breeze came up during Helio Castroneves' run. I counted at least three times his car hit the rev limiter, including once when he just passed the start/finish line. That one caused Zach and I to look at each other as if to say "did we really hear that?".

Expect a little nose-to-tail action at the start of stints but the longer they go on and the more the tires fall off it should create some passing opportunities. From what I saw in practice the DW12 is as racy as always and a car that is hooked up will move through traffic well.

*One thing I that a "typical" IndyCar stop seems a little more laid back than at Indianapolis. Maybe it is the smaller crowds or the fact not everyone is wound so tight because, as we all know, Indy is in a different universe when it comes to pressure. But it seemed like the drivers moved around a little more freely in the pits, and especially back in the paddock area. Everything, from practice to qualifying to the race, sits in such a small window that you just take a shot at each segment and let the chips fall where they may.

*As we all know, this is a big weekend for IndyCar in Milwaukee. Today's crowd seemed pretty decent for a Friday afternoon. Looking across from the pits into the grandstands there seemed to be a few thousand people, and not many had left even as the Lights race went off at about 5:45 local time. Hopefully that is a precursor for tomorrow.

Two things Michael Andretti and his promotions group has done in organizing this that caught my eye came in layout and sponsor activation. There are plenty of things to do in the infield, and the appeal is there for all types of fans. There wasn't a huge crowd in the infield today, but I did see people streaming in for the live music as I was leaving at 8 p.m. Maybe how he is doing this -- putting on a show that "HEY!" has a race going on too -- isn't necessarily old school, if it goes well it might set a new standard for how these things can be done.

In terms of sponsors, the main sponsors for Andretti Autosport are displayed prominently throughout the venue. Heck, even the cooler in the media center was stocked with RC Cola, Sun Drop and Venom energy drinks! His sponsors are getting a ton of bang for their buck this weekend, and other sponsors should take notice.

*Speaking of the media center. Really, it is a very interesting place, and not at all what you might think. Yeah there is some laughing and joking going on, but the people there are very serious and very passionate about their jobs, and though the media gets a bad rap sometimes most of them care deeply about doing a good job. What I love the most -- well, besides the free food -- is the sheer amount of information you can get while in there.

They have media guides, press releases, stats, facts and figures. The media guide just for this weekend is well over 100 pages and gives you the goods on every driver who took to the track. Excellent stuff. Not to mention things like sheets of quotes from the drivers and other things that don't always make it into stuff that you read.

*I had a long conversation with driver Pippa Mann, and while she is one of the nicest people you could ever meet, she is also incredibly smart and very good at explaining technical terms. I went to school for close to 45 minutes as she talked at length about how to get around the Mile and what drivers do to make it go faster. Listen, all of us think we have some sort of knowledge about racing, but it turns out we don't know a thing!

We eventually got around to talking about a replacement for the cancelled China race (like many she favors Road America) and somehow that got us talking about Las Vegas.

I won't get into details of our conversation, but I will say this: when you hear a driver explain their concerns about pack racing from a completely technical and strategic standpoint, you understand where they are coming from. Maybe in the end you still might not agree with them, but you would at least be able to acknowledge their point of view. It just isn't as cut and dried as we think.

*Predictions! If you skipped to here, shame on you! Anyway, since qualifying is over I will not have a pick for the pole, and if I'd had I would have been way off as I was going to go with Alex Tagliani or Tony Kanaan.

But I am sticking with Kanaan to win the race. He said in his PR press release (which for the most part won't see the light of day) that he worked on qualifying setups but then moved to race setups in the afternoon. With that configuration he moved well in traffic, and because of four drivers who qualified ahead of him taking 10-grid penalties, he goes off sixth, so he is in a great position.

KV Racing was onto something as Rubens Barrichello will start third and EJ Viso fifth.

Also keep an eye on some of the 10-grid guys, most notably Justin Wilson, Will Power and Josef Newgarden who all qualified in the top seven Friday. Newgarden was fast all day in all setups, is this his weekend to take a big step forward?

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