Friday, October 19, 2012

Frenetic Friday: IndyCar 36

Taking a break from my business school studies (wink, wink), I thought I would celebrate the coming weekend by recapping the highs and lows of the IndyCar 36 series, which was one of the season's pleasant surprises.

I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say I was hooked from the first episode which followed Tony Kanaan during the opener at St. Pete. Each episode was very well done and gave some real insight to the sport and the personal lives of the drivers. I learned a lot, and especially enjoyed the technical and tactical discussions in the pre-race meeting. Cool stuff.

Still, there were some I liked, and some I didn't. Here is a list of my favorites and a couple of my not-so-faves.

*Josef Newgarden. I think beginning to end, this is the one I liked the most. It did a good job of capturing the ups and downs of a race weekend, and Josef and his SFHR team had its share of both at the season finale at Fontana. The positives started when he was cleared to driver after breaking a finger on his left hand at Sonoma and sitting out the race in Baltimore. He qualified fourth (started 14th with a grid penalty) and during the race had stretches where he was really, really good. He also took his team to In-N-Out Burger (and probably treated), which from what I hear is a highlight of any trip to Southern California. Unfortunately I didn't partake in my only trip out there in 2003.

But there were also plenty of downs. Newgarden's Honda cooked itself right off the bat in the practice session, and just after his first pit stop he had an electrical issue that cost him six laps, which was just the capper to the kind of hard-luck season he experienced.

The best part of the episode was his conversations with his team afterwards, especially his discussion with Sarah Fisher. She's a racer, she knows how hard it is, and might be the perfect owner for a young driver like Newgarden.

This series is tough, especially for a driver with his age and experience, because with just over a dozen IndyCar races under his belt, it wasn't a fair fight against guys who have been doing this for close to a decade -- or even more. He got a life lesson every single weekend, and next year will be a lot better because of it.

*Helio Castroneves. Keeping up with Helio is a tough task, and is especially tough at Indy, where his energy and intensity is ratcheted up about seven levels. Still, his quest for what is becoming a more and more elusive fourth win was interesting television.

One thing you notice about the drivers is the off-track commitments that take up a lot of their time on a race weekend. When you look at what goes into the weekend in the life of a driver at Indy, it is amazing how they can stay focused on task, and that is trying to win the Indy 500.

Backstage before the driver intros was really good. My favorite line was Kanaan saying how he thought it would get easier mentally, but actually it is the other way around. Knowing what we know now and how close TK came to winning just over three hours later, we understand.

Another highlight? The drive from his condo to the track on race day, and Will Power cranking up "California Love" on the car radio. Will Power, represent.

*Kanaan. Given that it was St. Pete, and all of the memories and emotions that being there conjured up for everyone, TK was rather subdued that weekend. Not like anyone blames him. The cameras captured a very personal moment between TK and Holly Wheldon just before the race started, and TK seemed to be carrying a lot on his shoulders into the car with him.

Still, a good pit call and a fortunate yellow put him into the lead 20 laps into the race, but alas his day ended when an electrical gremlin shut his car down while he was pacing the field under yellow.

I liked this one because given the emotion of the weekend a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn't afraid to show how he is feeling was a the perfect pick for the first race back after the way the 2011 season ended.

*James Hinchcliffe. Outside of Indy, very few drivers get the opportunity for a "home game", but that is what Hinch gets when he races in Toronto. An excellent part of the show was the focus on Hinch's connection to Greg Moore, and how he chooses to honor his memory by wearing the red gloves. He is also very cognizant of his responsibility to carry on the excellence of Canadian drivers of the past.

He also showed he "gets it"...that the fans are the most important part of the sport and it's why he tries to engage them and be accommodating as possible.

His weekend didn't go well, either, as his engine failed and he dropped out after climbing through the field. Too bad it wasn't next year as he would be able to come back the next day and try again.

I could go on about more of them I liked, but we'll stop there for now. Unfortunately, there were a couple of them that I wasn't too fond about.

*Graham Rahal. Graham just didn't come across well in his episode. Watching it, you would think that he'd had one of the worst racing weekends of his life, instead of what he did do, which was start eighth and finish fourth. He just seemed sour and complained a lot, which whether his complaints were valid or not they didn't come across very well.

One thing he did show was that he learned well from his dad how to understand the business side of the sport and how to engage sponsors. You can see from his visit to the NTB shop that he gets how to work hard to get and keep sponsors happy.

You can also see how close of a relationship he has with his dad, and how if as rumored Graham "goes home" and drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing that it will be a good pairing between the two.

*Ed Carpenter. I like Ed a lot, and watching him drive the wheels off of a car on an oval is a joy. I also respect his ambition to branch out as an owner/driver, and believe that when he steps out of the car and becomes a full-time owner that he might become one of the best in the series. He is incredibly bright and I especially like how important his family is to him and the relationship he has with his wife and kids.

That said, his show was disappointing. He was really down on the whole weekend, from the heat racing qualifying format to the setup of the cars and the way they drove at Iowa (which was much like Texas, which he hated). I know these are competitive guys and race weekends aren't always kittens and rainbows, but geez. I'm a firm believer in the mental side of the sport and he talked his way out of a good finish about the same time the car rolled off the hauler.

One thing that I found interesting is that there seemed to be an "IndyCar 36" jinx on whoever was being featured that weekend. Just a quick recap: TK's motor dumped at St. Pete, Ryan Hunter-Reay was penalized for punting Takuma Sato at Long Beach, JR Hildebrand qualified 18th at Indy, while Helio hit a tire from Will Power's car and finished 12th, Charlie Kimball crashed up at Texas, Carpenter was gawd-awful at Iowa, and Hinch blew a motor at Toronto.

About the only people who fared well were Rahal at Barber (4th), Simon Pagenaud (3rd) at Mid-Ohio, Power (2nd) at Sonoma and Oriol Servia (7th) at Baltimore.

Hopefully that won't discourage other drivers from participating next year! They picked a pretty good crop of drivers this year, but there are a bunch of others still to come in 2013. Stay tuned.

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