Friday, November 15, 2013

IndyCar News Two Days In a Row!?!?

That's a question AND an exclamation, as we were hit with some more news today about seats for next year.

Of course, speculation has begun about Dario Franchitti's seat in the No. 10, and I'll get back to that in a minute. But the fresher info was announced by Ed Carpenter Racing, as the team's namesake made the decision to step away from the car on the twisties in favor of Mike Conway. Ed will still drive the ovals, of course.

What? have a guy who is a car owner making a business decision to take himself out of a car in favor of another guy who we all thought committed harikari to his career 14 months ago when he decided he didn't want to drive ovals.

Holy confusion, BatKid! (Sidebar: I had to throw that in there. The whole BatKid saga today was awesome. Hat's off to the mini Dark Knight for a dominating performance and the people of Make-A-Wish and San Francisco that made it happen. There is goodness in the world...who knew?)

That's IndyCar, isn't it? Expect the unexpected. Mike Conway's career has actually flourished, as the Brit is in high demand as a road-course specialist, and showed he is one of the best twistie drivers around with his performance in Detroit back in June. Meanwhile, Ed made a super-solid and intelligent decision (he does have a degree from Butler, after all) in stepping out of the car on said twisties, which might have been difficult to do.

Racers race, and while I know Ed is pretty business savvy too, he's a racer first, and stepping out of the car -- especially his OWN car -- has to hurt a bit, whether it makes sense or not.

Still, he did the right thing. This gives him a chance to hyper-focus himself on oval races, which is what he should do. As bad as he is on twisties, he's THAT GOOD on ovals. And in the end, Ed's focus is on one thing, winning the Indianapolis 500. It wouldn't surprise me if Ed someday won the 500 and retired on the spot. It really wouldn't.

So when he is out of the car, he has Mike Conway piloting the No. 20 on his courses of specialty. I think what will work so well here is Mike is the Man from the beginning, meaning he does all of the testing and communicating with the engineers. While he was great this past season in his part-time role at Dale Coyne Racing, he probably didn't get all that much seat time. He was showing up on race weekends and driving the car, with adjustments and such being made mostly on the fly. In this situation, he has the same advantages as a full-time driver from the first day of testing.

Man, this is so gonna work. It's entirely possible that one of them (or both) will win this year, and I think their personalities will mesh well. Ed's a little high-strung at times, and Mike is super cool, so between them it will be a nice compliment, so long as Ed can let go on the twistie side and let his peeps do their jobs.

Now, back to Ganassi. Chip Ganassi had a news conference this morning and said he is looking at several options for the 10 car. So much so that he even gave Sam Hornish Jr. a call, to which Sam gave a polite "no thanks" because the bank for driving in Nationwide or the back of the Cup field is better than in IndyCar.


Want another example? See Allmendinger, AJ. I don't want to bag on Sam too much because I like him, but deciding not to come back is smart anyway. This is a whole new IndyCar, and even in good equipment I don't see him having the overall ability, especially on road/street courses, to capture past glories, because the game has been stepped up in IndyCar in an exponential way in the last couple of years, let alone the last six.

Truthfully, Chip has a difficult decision. When you put it into historical perspective, the Target cars are pretty iconic. I mean, when you think of that livery, who comes to mind? Michael Andretti? (Yes for a season) Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya? Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti?

Really, that's some high-profile stuff, some of the best open wheel pilots of this generation. Not to mention, Target is a great partner to IndyCar, but when you get calls from Minneapolis after some poor qualifying results (like the did at Indy in 2012), there's pressure. This might be one of the most important hires of Ganassi's ownership career.

So which direction does he go? Does he go with an established star or someone with a ton of upside?

As far as established drivers go, the only one he should call would be Justin Wilson. With three podiums and a sixth-place finish in the standings this year, he's peaking, no doubt. He is incredible on road courses, and his oval skills have vastly improved over the last two years.

Remember, all of this has been done with a second-tier team. Imagine what he could do with Target money, Ganassi and Mike Hull and the best engineers in the game in his corner. Not to mention a Chevy. Maybe we'd discover how good the guy really is, maybe with all those resources he could contend for a title. Maybe.

On the other hand, you've got several up-and-comers like Conor Daly and Indy Lights champion Sage Karam. I like Karam a lot, but Chip's not going to hand the keys to a soon to be 19-year-old. No way. My son Matt turns 18 in three months, and I say a quick prayer whenever I hand him the keys to my Nissan Versa. So Chip, I feel ya.

Which leads to Daly. I will be honest here...if I won the lottery today, and started up my own IndyCar team, he would be my driver.

(Sidebar No. 2: If I did win the lottery, I would probably start a truck team. I like the trucks and the laid-back atmosphere. I wouldn't want to swap punches -- and dollars -- with Ganassi, Penske and Andretti. Don't hate me.)

Daly has proven he is fast in everything he drives, he's great with the media (regular and social) and comes from a racing family, so he knows what he is doing. Driving in Europe, he knows what it is like to drive under immense pressure, and it seems like he is comfortable and well-liked in the IndyCar paddock. Like Scott Dixon before him, he appears to be a guy you could hitch your wagon to and ride it to a lot of success for the next decade or two.

So those are my two thoughts, safe as they may be, but I also think there is a door number three. Behind that door is an established veteran like Alex Tagliani, Ryan Briscoe or Oriol Servia who you sign to a one or two-year deal and wait for a stable of drivers to work through their contracts.

Those three guys are good for a couple of seasons to hold a place, but aren't a long term solution. As much as I love all of those guys as drivers and people, I don't see them winning a championship, and that is what is expected in the 10. Ganassi B is another story, but the 10 is expected to run up front and contend for titles. That is what Target drops eight figures into Ganassi's lap for every season.

If Chip makes that decision, in a couple of years he has a more experienced Daly, not to mention a choice between guys like James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud (who five years from now may be the best of this group) or a couple of others I'm not thinking of off the top of my head.

What to do? What to do? Seriously, I wouldn't want to be in Chip's shoes right now. OK, I wouldn't mind being in his shoes, because they are probably very nice, very expensive and very comfortable. But I wouldn't want to be the one making this decision, that's for sure.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dario Franchitti: The Champ Has Left the Building

It takes a lot to take my breath way. A lot. But when I saw the news today that Dario Franchitti would be unable to continue racing after the injuries he suffered in Houston last month, that's exactly what happened to me.

I can't exactly say I'm shocked. Considering his injuries to his spine and his concussion (which was the fourth of his career), he was looking at a long rehab, and at this point in his life and career it was probably pretty easy to take the doctor's advice and step away.

Man, it's still going to take a long time to wrap our collective heads around this one. While there is no doubt the last couple of years -- where he finished seventh and 10th in the standings, respectively -- have been definitely not like the Franchitti we had gotten used to, there is also no doubt that even though he has just turned 40 (welcome to the club, BTW) he was still a threat to add to his total of three Indy 500 wins and four series championships.

It's always sad when a driver, or any athlete for that matter, is unable to continue their careers and don't get to leave on their terms. I don't think a proud man such as Dario would've wanted the last time he left a track in his career to be in an ambulance, but at the same time, he will more than likely live a full and normal life, which is a nice tradeoff not afforded to other racing champions in the past.

So his career totals are final and official: 31 open wheel wins, victories in the 2007, 2010 and 2012 Indy 500 and series championships in 2007 and 2009-11 in 265 starts dating back to 1997. Add a victory in the 2008 Rolex 24 and you have a resume that few can touch.

That's one heck of a legacy, isn't it? When you combine the wins, 500 wins and championships into one metric, how many people in American open wheel racing have accomplished what he has? Very, very few. I'm fortunate that in my life as a race fan, I have seen lots of great drivers, including everyone in the top-15 in career open wheel wins and other all-time greats like Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell. I've seen the drivers who comprise the stratosphere of this sport, and there is no doubt in my mind that Dario deserves to be in their company.

I'm sure people will try and discount him in some way, shape or form, whether it's bringing up he never won a 500 under green (neither did Dan Wheldon, BTW), his failed attempt at NASCAR in 2008 or the fact he was working with Target and Chip Ganassi's money for much of his career, but that's just static. When you look at his career as a whole, going back to the late 90s, he's been a front-runner from the beginning, regardless of his employer or competition.

Not to mention, you could measure Franchitti and his career from the respect he commanded, from his team to the paddock to the racing world as a whole. Those people know what's up, so I'll take their word for it.

I think my best Franchitti memory was at the 500 last year when he fell to 28th place after being spun by EJ Viso on pit lane and methodically worked his way back up to the front. I remember sitting in the stands and a British gent behind me kept guaranteeing that Dario was going to end up in Victory Lane. Why?

"Because he knows how to win."

Another was a couple of weeks later in Milwaukee, when Dario slugged his way through practice with the 15th-quickest time only to find the magic in qualifying and put the car on the pole. In the media center afterwards, he looked beat, like a man who had spent all of his energy for the day, despite the fact it was only five in the afternoon.

He talked about how frustrated he had been because they hadn't found the right combinations, and how hard they had worked to get the car right. That earned my respect, because it showed that despite everything he has accomplished, his competitive fire still burned as bright as ever, and it still meant a lot to him to give everything he had.

In the end, one of the best things about Dario is that he truly got it. He always raced and carried himself with integrity, he understood and appreciated the history of the sport and he approached what he did with an undeniable passion. Victories and championships aside, that's a pretty good legacy too.