Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Just Because I Feel Like Blogging

I know, not the most catchy of titles, but I've already used words like "musings" and never want to use "potpourri". I could have gone with "potent potables" like on the SNL Jeopardy skits, but whatever.

I'm in a little of a pissy mood, so this has no rhyme or reason. Still, please don't use that as a reason to temper your enjoyment of this piece.

Here we go:

* We are now 6.3 percent of the way through the season (I looked it up) and one comment I have heard about race winners or drivers who had outstanding finishes is that they "didn't turn a wheel wrong all weekend". You know what? In today's IndyCar, that's exactly what it takes to win. From here on out, it should just be assumed.

AJ Allmendinger's comment after Barber that the series is as competitive as it's ever been got a lot of traction, and for good reason. He wasn't wrong.

Seriously. With the competition as close as it is now, one wrong move or one mistake can really screw you over. It only takes being off by a half-second to put you back in the field in qualifying, or a poor decision can cost you during the race. The margin for error is just so small anymore, which is good, because that's where parity comes from.

Like last weekend at Long Beach. A Foyt, Rahal and Coyne car all on the podium at one time? I think we should get used to wacky stuff like that. When it all sorts out the majority of the races will still be won and podiums still be captured by Penske, Ganassi or Andretti drivers, but this won't be the only weekend of the year where we see what we saw at Long Beach.

* Penske will win its share of races and would think Will Power sure hopes so. I really, really didn't see this coming. First, that it has been a year since he has won and second that he has started the season P16, P5 and P16 in the opening stretch of the season. In each of the last three years he has at least two wins in the first four races...and in 2012 he had three.

I know both of his P16 finishes are someone else's fault. There isn't anything you can do when a car drives over the top of you or someone sends their car out of the pits too early. But the point is that Power cannot afford that, he needs to do well on twisties. His deficiency on ovals isn't overstated given his one oval podium and one win came on the same day in Texas two years ago.

While he is only 37 points back -- which is a deficit he could probably make up in a doubleheader weekend this summer -- he has seven drivers in front of him. I once asked a pro golfer (ahem, Tiger Woods, ahem...but I'm not name dropping!) what concerned him more: how far he was out of the lead or how many people stood between him and the lead?

His answer? Both. Because he had no control over the other guys. He could throw out a good score but the only way he gains on the field is if others falter. If EVERYONE falters. He needs a lot to happen, and let's not forget the fact that there are other drivers behind him, such as James Hinchcliffe, who will probably move forward in the standings too.

It's three races in, and of course you can't cede the title to anyone, but you could sure make your life difficult in these three weeks, and he has.

* Now, I'm not just picking on WP. While it is great to see Takuma Sato in P2, Marco Andretti in P4 and Justin Wilson in P5 in the standings (hence the great parity), there are a lot of drivers who need to stop some bleeding big-time in both Sao Paulo and Indy.

Hinch is one of them. As sharp as he was the first week (didn't turn a wheel wrong, after all) he has had it go south the last two. If you look at drivers who have won titles in the past, they all get one mulligan...maybe two. If that's the case, he has used his up and needs to go on a pretty big run over the next couple of months. I'd have to say he needs to win next weekend at Brazil or at Indy to get back into this thing.

I'd probably say the same about guys like Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud as well. Dario Franchitti? At 20th in points and a staggering 55 ducats behind leader Helio Castroneves, he hasn't given up, but we'd need to see some dominance that we haven't seen from him in a while.

Like I's not just about piling up points, it's passing others. This isn't old-school IndyCar, passing 19 drivers in the standings isn't as easy as it might have once been.

* I brushed over Marco's name a few paragraphs ago and I have one question...who IS this guy? Has he ever been fourth in points after three races? I'm guessing no, but he has shown so much growth and maturity since the beginning of the season. We'll see what happens when, or if, he experiences some adversity this season, but from what we've seen so far this is the new normal for Marco.

It's tough to say if it's the driver coach or just a new attitude or whatever. In the end I believe it was just a bunch of soul searching that led him to the conclusion: hey, I'm a competitor, I hate losing, and I am missing an incredible opportunity here.

As a competitive person myself, if I were Marco and I put on the performance he did last year while one teammate was winning the championship and the other had a breakout season, I'd be embarrassed. There is no reason he shouldn't be in the same category as his teammates, and I think he's realized that.

I was 25 once, I get it. He had an easy path to get here and maybe he took it for granted for a while. We all get our stuff together sooner or later, and I think he's done that. If I had to pick a favorite to win the 500 right here, right now, Marco would probably be it.

* Dozens of paragraphs in and a myriad of subjects later, and I'm finally getting to the 500. One more week until May, peeps! Yeah, I know we have a little time to wait once the calendar crosses over into the greatest month of the year, but May 1 is close enough.

First of all, let's talk about the car count. It seems like there was a bit of concern over the last few days as that number has floated around in the high-20s somewhere, but a little action happened on that front when Michel Jourdain signed to run with Rahal Letterman Lanigan this week which brings us to an even 30.

That follows on the heels of rumors that people like Jacques Lazier, Townsend Bell and Pippa Mann (make it happen!) have the funding in place and are looking for a perfect fit.

But then I heard another name today that was seriously interesting: 1996 winner Buddy Lazier. Really? It would be crazy to think it but a photo floated around on Twitter today of Jean Alesi's chassis at the Dallara factory in Speedway with Buddy's name on the side.

If it happens, that would be a serious upset of major porportions. A guy who hasn't driven the 500 in five years getting a ride out of the blue?

Probably not the sexiest get of the year among the drivers who have helmet in hand, but if you read my post from two years ago, why not? Five top-five finishes shows the guy knows how to get around the place, and if you are a lower budget team with no thoughts of winning he makes sense as he has 500 experience and has brought the car home in one piece each of the last four times he's raced here.

Plus you get a little boost by having a former winner in your car. I was lucky enough to run into him in the garage area last year and he said he had something in the works a year ago but nothing came through. So we'll see what is going on with that one.

As far as total count goes, I know we will get to 33, we always do. Some teams like Ed Carpenter Racing, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing or even Sam Schmidt Motorsports might say they are tapped out already, but something with one of those teams seems to always come through.

With enough chassis and engines out there for more than 33, the question is just how far the funding will go for us to see some bumping action. Hopefully we get a couple, because despite having spent the entire qualifying weekend at the track last year I wasn't upset by not having any bumping, but I am in the minority and I want to see everyone go home happy.

* Final thought: ABC is bringing in Lindsay Czarniak as the host for the 500 is a great move. She has lots of experience as a racing broadcaster so kudos to ABC for that. They then counter that with the move of adding Eddie Cheever in the booth to join Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear.

Good lord. I can't think of a single person who liked him the first time in the booth, and I would take a random guess that if you polled most race fans he is the least popular Indy 500 winner in history. Of all the former racers who are out there you couldn't find one that would actually add something to the broadcast?

Note to ABC (and as an extension ESPN): we are getting seriously spoiled on NBCSN, you really need to do better than that!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Long Beach Post-Game


Since Takuma Sato made the move to IndyCar three years ago, lots has been expected of him. He's fast, fearless and has a Formula 1 background. Unfortunately, those three traits can rear their ugly heads at times, and many times they did as Taku spent the first couple of years of his time in IndyCar breaking a lot of stuff.

Last year Sato seemed to have made some strides working under the patient eye of Bobby Rahal, and his move to AJ Foyt Enterprises over the winter made some people think he was ready to win.

To those people I say...good call! Taku won in a big way Sunday when he dominated the final half of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and became the sixth driver in history to post his first win on a street course which as always produced some great theater.

After two fairly uneventful (and by that I mean clean) races at St. Pete and Barber, we seemed to be heading for some carnage, and we certainly got it. In a place where nose jobs are aplenty (I didn't make that up, stole it from a Twitter post), more than a half-dozen cars needed a little rhinoplasty after contact with the cars ahead of them, including points leader Helio Castroneves and defending champ Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Several other drivers went into the tires, and subsequent caution flags made some teams throw some caution to the wind and come up with some great strategies.

Let's talk about it a little:

Winner -- Takuma Sato. What a start Taku has gotten off to this season, as this win goes along with his front-row start at St. Pete puts him second in points. He was pretty close to perfect Sunday, which as we should have figured out by now you need to be to win an IndyCar race. It's a great win for Taku, a great win for Japan (he's the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race) and a great win for Foyt Enterprises. Larry Foyt is putting together a very good organization there, I met him at a function a few years ago and came away impressed with how bright he is, and his move from driver to the business side of the house was a big move for AJFE.

Runner-up -- Graham Rahal. Looking lost and going P13 and P21 in his first two races driving for his father Bobby wasn't what Graham had been looking for this year...maybe this will help. Starting a season-best 11th, Rahal looked good from the start and drove a clean, patient race.

Third place -- Justin Wilson. Really? Really? The same guy who didn't even make a qualifying attempt on Saturday improves 22 spots from his starting position and gets on the podium? The guy can flat-out drive, can't he? The weekend was an utter disaster until the green flag dropped on Sunday, but he got it done when it counted for his first podium since winning Texas last June.

Fourth place -- Dario Franchitti. After finishing DFL at St. Pete, Dario made some big strides at Barber before a mechanical gremlin ended his day, and now a pole and fourth-place finish at Long Beach shows we who started to write him off shouldn't have spoken so soon. Last year this race was a springboard to a run of three races where he was P5 at Sao Paulo, won Indy and was second at Belle Isle. Oh yeah, then he won the pole at both Milwaukee and Iowa. Still, Dario has a lot of climbing to get back into the points chase. Despite a great effort this weekend, he still stands 20th.

Other thoughts -- The third round of any PGA Tournament is called "moving day" as players try to make hay before a big Sunday push. While Sao Paulo sits between here and Indy, the events of today made me think of that term, because there was a lot of moving going on as people try to build mojo heading into May.

Honda was probably the biggest mover. Just three weeks ago Chip Ganassi called them out and thought they didn't have commitment necessary to compete with Chevy. They took the first four spots today.

Sato made a big move to second in points (Castroneves still leads) and Wilson moved all the way up to fifth. Here is the team breakdown of the top five drivers in points: Penske, Foyt, Ganassi, Andretti, Coyne. Seven different teams are in the Top 10. Wow.

Today marked the first time since the series unified in 2008 that no driver from Penske Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti Autosport had stood on the podium. More and more the competitive level of this series is stepping up and parity is beginning to rule.

One thing you have to do to win a championship is to somehow dig in and make the most of a crappy weekend. Scott Dixon tore up a lot of equipment this weekend in separate incidents, qualified P26, got spun out on the first lap by the only car further back in the field than he was (Tristan Vautier) -- and somehow still finished 11th. We should put a star next to this race if he is in the championship hunt at Fontana.

Marco Andretti continues to impress me. His average finish of 6.0 through three races is by far the best he has had since his IndyCar career began in 2006. If he can show the patience he has learned so far this season five weeks from now, we may be asking Marco if he's got milk. He's now fourth in points.

Some drivers/teams moved up, and others moved down. James Hinchcliffe has scored just 11 points over the last two weeks as he has in effect crashed out of the last two races. Today he was so pissed he jumped on his scooter while wearing his helmet and drove off. I'm not sure he has even stopped yet, he's probably out on I-10 between LA and Vegas and still hasn't cooled off yet. For good reason as a season with a lot of promise has become a bit perilous by now.

Next up -- Brazil. We give the IndyCar series to our Brazilian friends for a weekend so they can celebrate as only they know how. Sao Paulo has been a place where we can expect the unexpected, so as crazy as the season has been so far, who knows what will happen next!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Frenetic Friday -- Road Course Blues

Instead of going with a Long Beach preview (I'll go with a pre-game Saturday night or Sunday morning) I decided to resurrect Frenetic Friday for the first time in a while to comment about the idea Mark Miles is floating about ending the IndyCar season on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Miles' idea is to run it as a season finale in late August or early September, and start the season earlier in a series of international events. The hope is to avoid any issues with football while still getting a full season lasting several months. He also argues that bringing the race back to the center of IndyCar fandom (a large portion of it, that is) is a good thing, and since most teams are based in Indy it would be a cost-saving venture. At least that is the gist of it.

As Curt Cavin said in this Indy Star article today there are a ton of logistical roadblocks in the way of getting this to happen. Which is probably a good thing.

I'm opposed to this, but not for reasons that you may think. I mean, if you could put on the race and draw 100,000 people over the course of the weekend, it would be a good thing. Plus, while other people are against this just based on the sanctity that is IMS, I'm not. As I have stated before, I like the idea of IMS being used several times a year. After all, Daytona is used several times a year by various motorsports groups, and it doesn't take away from its flagship event.

Actually, my opposition comes from two main areas: 1) the road course sucks and 2) on principle alone I'm against ending the season with a twistie race.

Let's look at point number one. In the roughly 15 years the road course has put on a race, it has yet to provide anyone with the thrilling moments that we expect. In my mind, the mistake IMS made was keeping the four-holes that are part of the Brickyard Crossing golf course that sits in the infield intact.

I understand why, given the massive investment made in the course's redesign and the fact that squeezing those holes back outside the track probably couldn't be done. Although I played the course before the redesign and it was possible (the golf course on the inside at the time was a separate nine-hole track), it's just when Pete Dye gets his hands on a golf course you need a lot of real estate.

Still, the way the course is designed just isn't conducive to good racing. Maybe seeing the cars go two or three-wide screaming down the main straight away before diving into turn one would be cool, but outside of that I don't see a lot of passing happening.

What I wish the would have done was made the road course twist a little bit and exit back onto the track, say, in the middle of the back stretch, giving the course almost a full mile of total straightaway. Then it would be an interesting layout that would bring into play what we like about Indy. With a run from the middle of the backstretch all the way around to where it goes into that first right-hander near what is Turn 4, cars would get pretty cranked up and would require a lot of courage to dive under another car under braking.

Long story short, I hate the road course.

Point two is that the series has had some great luck when it comes down to championship battles the last several years, and those battles have been magnified because they have come on oval tracks. I don't see how it can get any better than Ryan Hunter-Reay rushing up from the 22nd starting position to win the title at Fontana, or the tension at Homestead in 2010 when Dario Franchitti took the title away from Will Power.

Sure, the twisties are an awesome product, but I don't think we could duplicate what we have had the last few years, and we shouldn't try to mess with that formula. Not only that, I will go all old school on you and say that IndyCars roots come from oval tracks, and that's how the season should finish.

Fortunately, it doesn't seem like it will happen, and if it does, we'll deal with it. I think what is interesting is how it's obvious that Mark Miles likes to think out loud -- a lot -- and I think he throws out ideas just to see the initial public perception. I'm sure it won't take him long to get a feel for what the public thinks about this one.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

HIGPA Wrap-up

I know I am seriously late to the party about the goings-on of the weekend, but the start of baseball season usually finds be quite busy. But I know a few of you have been waiting with baited breath for my thoughts of what happened Sunday at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, and I want to bring a smile to your embittered lips.

(Yes, that's a serious inside joke. But if it made you laugh too, I'm glad.)

Anyway, I had to watch the race on DVR (I was at a ballgame) which while I'm glad I am still able to see the race, it isn't the same as checking it out live and getting the full effect of the race and accompanying social media. Still, there were a lot of things that I liked about the race, most especially that the final 85 laps were run under green.

Some don't like that because yellows bunch up the field and make things more "exciting". Maybe so, but even with the long green run there was still some good stuff through the field. I'll get to that.

So here's the Top 5, and a few other musings:

Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. We learned a couple of things this weekend...1) If there was any doubt before, we have reached the point where we can now call RHR an ultra-elite driver and 2) Through two races, Andretti Autosport is the best team on the grid. Two wins, a pole and three drivers in the top 5 in points, nobody beats that.

But back to RHR. In winning the 10th race of his career, he won the pole, led the most laps (53) and down the stretch stared down three drivers who have been very, very good at Barber Motorsports Park, working past former winners Will Power and Helio Castroneves and holding off Scott Dixon, who had finished second all three years the race has been run there. A clean sweep for the weekend, rebounding from his disappointing run at St. Pete two weeks ago.

Runner-up: Scott Dixon. Dixie joked afterwards that he was looking for a bridesmaids dress after finishing second at Barber for the fourth straight year. He drove crazy hard trying to catch RHR in the race's final 15 laps, but catching him and passing him would've been another thing. Still, a fifth-place finish and second-place finish in the season's first two weeks is the consistency we expect from him.

3rd place: Helio Castroneves. Say hello to the new points leader! Two weeks, two podiums, most laps led (67). Helio has been crazy consistent since the beginning of last season, and seems to be getting stronger.

4th place: Charlie Kimball. While this isn't the best finish of his career (he finished 2nd at Toronto last year), it might have been one of his better drives. Kimball was fast all weekend, and his pass of Power in the race's closing laps will be on the list of the best passes of the year. Even Power, who has made his share of sweet moves, was in awe of how Kimball got around him. Has he started to turn the corner?

5th place: Will Power. Believe it or not, this is the first time since 2009 that Power had failed to win one (or both) of the first two races of the season. No doubt, after finishing P16 and P5, he sits P8 in points and is behind the field. With Long Beach and Sao Paulo coming up, he still has time to recover, but with his well-documented issues with ovals, he can't fall too much further behind in the standings when Indy and the heavy oval portion of the season begins. Twisties are where WP makes his hay, there is still time, but he needs to make a push over the next couple of weeks.

The rest: With his P3 finish at St. Pete and his P7 finish here, Marco Andretti is just one Top 10 finish away from equaling his total from all of last year...Josef Newgarden finished P9 to pick up the first Top 10 of his IndyCar career...AJ Allmendinger was in line for a Top 10 until he stalled his car on the last pit stop and fell to P19. He will be back at Long Beach and rumors are out there that he will be in the car for the weekend at Detroit as well...Did anyone ever think that Dario Franchitti would ever be DFL in points? Especially after two races? He ran much better than he did when he crashed at St. Pete, but mechanical issues left him P25 at Barber. In fact, Allmendinger has one more point that Franchitti despite only running one race.

In other news...Not a Barber note, but it is worth mentioning that Ryan Briscoe has a ride for the Indy 500, joining forces with Ganassi, for whom he drove to a 10th-place finish in 2005. It is good to see that the 2012 polesitter will be back to defend his title, and maybe even make some noise as a one-off entry.