Sunday, July 13, 2014


As loyal readers of this space know, the Iowa race always gets a (!) because it's one of the best races on the schedule on a track that sits in one of the best states in the Heartland. And I was born here, so there's that.

I went with all caps because this was the first year that I saw the race in person, and if you saw my previous post you'd know that Kevin and I were pretty blown away by the experience. The cars look so fast -- especially when it gets dark and the lights take effect -- and it's just a fun way to spend a Saturday night.

So let's go through a few storylines and the top finishers, shall we?

*The Weather. No doubt the rain that hung over the area all weekend long was a question, and with very dark clouds forming as the race was starting, I was pretty worried we were going to get it in. Kevin, who fancies himself an amateur meteorologist, swore he saw some cloud rotation and a funnel, but while it was an awesome display of weather thankfully there was no lightning or locusts or anything like that.

The rains did come, about 30 laps into the race, but the small cell moved through and we were back to it in about 26 minutes. What was nice about the rain is that the temperature dropped and made the rest of the race very comfortable. Before the rains came it was an absolute blast furnace, with the heat index well into the 90s. So it was some good relief. What's amazing is that looking at the radar after the race, it was hard to believe the storms that are still racing east as I write this missed us completely.

*The Decision. No, not Lebron, I'm talking about the decision of Andretti Autosport and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing to go with tires for Ryan Hunter-Rey and Josef Newgarden, respectfully, during the final caution with just over a dozen laps to go. The roll of the dice worked as they were rockets on the final restart and moved up from 10th and 11th place to first and second.

Lots of teams make calls like that over the course of the season, and why not? Both guys had been mired in the mid-field for most of the night, so taking tires and going to the end of the lead lap is no big deal. It doesn't always end up like last night, but it's a risk worth taking, and sometimes it pays off big.

Since I was there (and have a lot to say), I'm going to run through the Top 10.

Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. What made Michael Andretti's call to bring his franchise in for tires even more crucial is that it gave RHR a chance to break a string that has seen some horrible results since winning the Indy 500. Since kissing the bricks, he hadn't led a lap since and had four finishes of P16 or worse. Racing isn't about who is fastest, it's about who crosses the line first. Up until that final restart, RHR had been having a very, very average race, but that final call made all the difference. Now he has three wins this year -- nine in his last 40 races dating back to 2012 -- and is back in the title picture again.

Funny story: after the race Kevin said, "Man, Ryan Hunter-Reay ALWAYS wins!". Turns out he's right...sort of. Kev and I have gone to three races together (Milwaukee 2012-13 and Iowa) and he has won them all. 

Second place: Josef Newgarden. For the second week in a row, Newgarden had a gawd-awful qualifying run, and then followed that up with a really great race. After crashing at Pocono and starting last, he eventually moved up to finish eighth, and in qualifying Friday he was so bad he only started ahead Carlos Huertas, who was seeing Iowa for the first time and was way out his element. Josef gained five spots ahead of the rain and by my count was running as high as seventh with 50 laps to go. His rush to the front was equally impressive to RHR's, and personally I felt he had the stronger car of the two and just ran out of laps. But he and his team needed this one badly.

Third place: Tony Kanaan. Like Newgarden, TK had the same fate two weeks in a row -- but not of the good kind. After a really bizarre strategy call at Pocono left him short on gas and forced him to pit from the lead with three laps to go, he was in front for 247 laps Saturday night, most of the time comfortably in front, and was clearly the class of the field, only to be run over by the RHR-JNew freight train. Still, he looked motivated all weekend long, and his effort the last two weeks shows he and the team are getting there.

Fourth place: Scott Dixon. Like teammate Kanaan, Dixie has been looking for a ray of light for weeks, and seemed to find one when he won the pole and ran well for the second week in a row. He now has four top-5 finishes in his last six races -- why is there a part of me that doesn't think he's quite out of it yet?

Fifth place: Ed Carpenter. Believe it or not, this was just Ed's second top-5 at Iowa since IndyCar started racing there, and despite the finish it will be mostly remembered for his incident with Juan Pablo Montoya that led to the final caution period of the night. I didn't see the incident live but looking at the replay it was clearly Ed's fault, or well, it was his spotter's fault. Here's a fun fact, if you add the total points between Ed and Mike Conway (320) they would sit ninth in the standings, which goes to show that along with two wins his decision to split the races was the right one.

Sixth place: James Hinchcliffe. Speaking of spotters, Hinch didn't need one on Saturday night, he needed a life coach. There is no doubt that Hinch is having his struggles, and even when he was making hay before the rain delay, he wasn't happy, saying over the scanner that he feared if the temperatures dropped his understeer problems would move forward into the front of the car.

He was right, as he had to deal with a big push after dark and just never felt comfortable all night long, at one point saying "this isn't fun". Still, he fought a couple of really good on-track battles during the race, especially one with Simon Pagenaud that was a lot of fun to watch. With only two top-5 finishes on the season, he needs to really make the most of his home games in Toronto this weekend to regain some confidence.

Seventh place: Graham Rahal. Despite a 15th-place starting spot, Rahal was happy with his car and had a quiet, if unspectacular, night. Sitting 19th in points, he needs to start stringing some good finishes together.

Eighth place: Helio Castroneves. Helio's finish doesn't reflect the night he had, as he ran towards the front for a lot of the night and 34 laps right after the rain delay. And here's the weird thing: outside of RHR his finish was the best of the drivers who were in the top eight in points, and as a result he is the new points leader (462), nine ahead of Will Power.

Ninth place: Ryan Briscoe. Like Helio, another guy who probably deserved a better finish. Though he never ran at the point he was in the top four for a huge chunk of the race and at some points seemed to be one of the stronger cars on the track. He's figuring something out too, with five top-10s in his last six race.

Tenth place: Charlie Kimball. How does a guy with seven top-10 finishes sit 16th in points? Well, he's cancelled that out with five finishes of P17 or worse, including P31 and P17 at Indy and Pocono, where double points were at stake. Consistency has been a problem for Charlie since he came to the series in 2012, as great efforts have been followed by lackluster ones.

Sixteenth place: Juan Pablo Montoya. OK, I'm adding one more because JPM might have been the driver who was the most fun to watch Saturday night. After falling off the lead lap due to a problem with his rear wing, and a subsequent pit lane fail, Montoya drove insanely hard the rest of the night. I'm sure the stat is out there somewhere, but I bet he passed more cars than anybody on the track. I've gotta say, he was pretty amazing.

So that's how we saw it from section 104, row 7, seats 29 and 30! What a great race, and I look forward to heading back there again next year.

After three oval races, we head north to Toronto and play two this weekend. This season has been total, utter madness, and with two races (one a standing start) awaiting us in Canada, it should be more of the same.

First Impressions of Iowa(!) Speedway

I'm actually going to write a for-real wrap-up on the race once I have the chance to see it in the DVR sometime Sunday. But I thought it would be fun to just throw out a few thoughts of my first trip to the 7/8th-mile oval just outside Newton, Iowa.

Heading this way had been a thought of mine for a while but it just never worked out, so I was happy when the chance arose this year. I was originally going to make the trip for both Friday and Saturday, but when I realized the IndyCar race was Saturday night we just decide to trek in for the main event.

So Kevin (my 13-year-old son) hit the road about 12:40 and headed out of Aurora. Our first stop would be at our hotel in Coralville, where I wanted to check in and get a look at the weather. Everyone on the ground there said "come on out!" so we did. My other concern was about traffic, but thankfully that wasn't  a problem either as we were in and parked right away.

Iowa Speedway is one of the "newer" tracks, built in 2006 just south of Interstate 80 a ways east of Des Moines. IndyCar has been a tenant and partner since the beginning, and local businesses have always figured a way to keep the series there. While how the series is looked at by track administration now that it facility is owned by NASCAR remains to be seen, it appears they will always keep a window open as while the crowds aren't overflowing, they are decent and there is a lot of sponsor activation.

In my life as a race fan, I've been to events at Indianapolis, Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Iowa and Daytona. I've also visited Monza (the post of my awesome day is here) as well as the 1992 Cleveland Grand Prix (RIP).

If I had to compare them to baseball stadiums, Indy would be Wrigley Field, Daytona would be Dodger Stadium (really the first of its kind), Milwaukee would be old Yankee Stadium (lots of history but heavily renovated) and Chicagoland and Iowa would both be like the new ballparks that have sprung up, like new Busch Stadium in St. Louis or someplace like that.

There is room for all of them. While Indy lacks lots of emenities, like functioning rest rooms and good sight lines, it makes up for it because, well, it's Indy. Your ticket is buying you passage into a living, breathing place of history, one of the best and most amazing sporting events on the planet, as well as a chance to see cars going faster than any race course in the world. So while things are cramped and in some places you can't see a lot of the track, the expectations are different because it's a 100-year-old facility.

The newer tracks, however, have a much different vibe. Most just have seats along the front straight, and the massive grandstands cut a pretty imposing figure as they rise several stories into the air. Since it sits on top of a hill and is less than a mile from the road, Iowa is visible from I-80 and it cuts a pretty impressive sight as it rises up from the cornfields.

The facilities are just better: better bathrooms and bigger concourses make it easy to move around, and the newer tracks are almost all built a bit like a bowl, so the infield sits low and you can see all the way around the track. Kevin wanted to sit close to the track, so we were in the seventh row and still could see pretty much the entire race course.

One of the things I tell people about racing in general is that if you have only watched it on TV, you haven't done yourself justice. Racing is something that has to be experienced in person, because TV doesn't capture the real speed and power of the cars.

To tell the truth, TV does no justice to Iowa, because there is no way it can show how fast the cars are really going. Once the race got started, I was absolutely amazed at the visual overload of cars running around a bullring oval at 180 mph. While Indy is 40 mph faster, my senses are used to being there. Iowa, meanwhile, is a whole different animal. The cars looked like fighter jets streaking flat-out around that little track. No doubt a very amazing experience, especially once it got dark, which made the cars look even more badass.

 The race, of course, was pretty excellent. While Tony Kanaan dominated the race, leading 247 of the 300 laps, there were lots of great battles all over the track that hopefully they showed on TV. While it wasn't crazy, 3-wide stuff, it was side-by-side racing where drivers had to battle to win positions.

We listened to James Hinchcliffe's scanner all night, and during one of many face offs with Simon Pagenaud his spotter yelled into the radio "Make him work for it!" Until winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and runner-up Josef Newgarden took tires during the last yellow and freight trained the rest of the field on their way to the front, nothing out there was easy, especially dealing with slower traffic.

But that's short-track racing, isn't it? I hope that Iowa Speedway remains on the IndyCar schedule for a long time, and I think it will. Despite the initial fears we all had once NASCAR took over the track, I think it's a mutually beneficial arrangement that will, or should, continue. Having now been on the schedule for several years, the race has a solid fanbase and has racing that creates even more fans every year. Like Kevin and I.

Iowa is a place every IndyCar fan should figure out how to experience at least once, and I have a feeling it will be on our schedule next year. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014


Just getting warmed up for my trip to Iowa next weekend with the title to this post. As loyal readers know, I always title my Iowa wrap-up Iowa! because 1) the race is all kind of awesome and 2) I was born in Davenport and my family goes back almost 200 years in the state. So I'm kind of a native.

Actually, if I had written this post this morning it could've been called Poco-No! given some of the turmoil going on this weekend. Of course, there was the Thursday story in which track principal Brandon Igdalsky tried to napalm his relationship with the IndyCar series (like he cares, more on that later) and then this morning we found out rookie Jack Hawksworth wouldn't be racing due to a heart contusion (!) he suffered in a practice crash.

Disappointing for him, for sure, but that's scary stuff, as was his crash that was measured at 100G's. Hope he's cleared in time for next weekend.

But as usual, the show trumped all, as the guys put on a race that made us forget about all of the crappy stuff.

While it wasn't chock full of the excitement many wanted (what, like 37 wrecked race cars? Now THAT'S exciting), it was some awesome pure racing, with strategy and talent coming to the forefront. If you look at the Top 5, with the exception of Carlos Munoz, whose ability to drive 2 1/2 mile ovals is beyond explanation, the other four drivers have probably made close to 500 open wheel starts. While I'm not sold on 500-mile races outside of Indy, it seems like the longer races go, the more talent and experience makes a difference.

Like Indy, and Texas, the race went on a long green to start, going a record 158 laps before Graham Rahal brought out the one -- and only -- caution of the day.

When Juan Pablo Montoya took the checkered flag about 30 minutes later, they had averaged 202 miles per hour, the fastest 500-mile race in open wheel history. Think about that, they covered 500 miles in just a shade under 2 1/2 hours. That's flying.

So let's go through the Top 5, and my obligatory comment about Will Power.

Winner: Juan Pablo Montoya. It's safe to say that JPM has answered any questions left about his desire and motivation, hasn't it? All of the sudden he's a title contender after going P3, P2, P7 and P1 in the last four races. I've always felt Juan gets in trouble when he gets impatient, but when he is patient and confident, and has a good car under him, he's one of the best on the planet. Also, huge props to him for going into the stands after the race and celebrating with the Colombians who had made the trip to Pocono to root him on.

Runner-up: Helio Castroveves. After the disaster that was Houston last weekend, Helio needed this one badly. Though he never led a lap all day, he was near the front throughout. With double points at stake, he pulled into a tie with Power for the top spot in the championship standings.

Third place: Carlos Munoz. Where does a 22-year-old who didn't grow up in this country and didn't see an oval until two years ago get the ability he has to drive superspeedways? Well one, he is truly fearless and two, he's just that talented. In three 2 1/2 mile oval races in his career, he's gone P2, P4 (both at Indy) and P3. Today marked his third podium and fourth Top 5 of the year, all from a guy who has run 13 races in his IndyCar career.

Fourth place: Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe is having a typical Briscoe-like season (for the most part), he consistently puts together Top 5-10 finishes and then pulls out a win somewhere along the way. Today he just missed out on the 29th podium of his career. I don't know if in the "new" IndyCar -- the competitive-as-hell version -- he could win a championship, but for the most part you know what you will get from him. And that's not a bad thing.

Fifth place: Scott Dixon. The Champ picked up his fifth Top 5 of the season, but his season sure feels a lot more disastrous than that, doesn't it? He moved up to eighth in the standings, which isn't THAT bad, but he has set the bar so high this year looks to be more of a train wreck than it really is.

Honorable mention: Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Mikhail Aleshin. TK and Josef went off-strategy in the last 100 miles of the race, and with a yellow it may have worked out for them, but in the end they ended up a handful of laps short and were forced to pit from the lead, finishing P11 an P8, respectively. Although given the season Newgarden has had, and his crash in qualifying Saturday, forcing him to start last, his team probably left with a bit of a smile on its face. Aleshin, meanwhile, ran a clean race and came home with another good finish. Race your hand if you saw this coming.

Will Power: You know, it's probably a good thing that Power is such a knucklehead and keeps running his way into stupid penalties, because if he hadn't, the championship chase would be incredibly boring. Today's drive through for blocking Helio Castroneves was his FIFTH of the season. I try and give the benefit of the doubt to everyone in this space, but he's turning into a clown with his dumb-ass decisions and his ridiculous explanations afterwards. Had he pushed HCN any further toward the bottom of the track, he would've punted him into the woods outside the backstretch, but his explanation was that he was letting Helio by. Then he proceeds to talk smack to the guys in the booth for criticizing him. Um, it's their job dude, and you are making their job pretty easy. I don't get it, he doesn't even seem to feel like he has a need to learn from his mistakes, and I have yet to hear him sincerely apologize for what he does. It's always someone else's fault. I can't root for a guy like that.

2015: And finally, of course because it's the IndyCar series, the future of the race is in doubt after Igdalsky said Thursday ticket sales were "scary" and he was thinking of trying to get out of the last year of the race's contract.

There are two sides to this coin, and in the sense of fairness I'll address them both. He is right when he says that IndyCar clamors for ovals yet no one supports them. That is true. (Well, half of it is crap because I have supported two of them each of the last two years and this year will support three) However, it's also his responsibility to do all he can to promote the race. While IndyCar does have a hand in that, it's also up to the venue to do their part. I don't see how racing is different from any other sport. It's not the job of the governing body to do the bulk of the promotion for an individual race. That's like saying the NBA is responsible for promoting and marketing the Bulls in Chicago. That's not the NBA's responsibility, it's on the Bulls. When I drive around here and see a billboard promoting the NASCAR races at Chicagoland Speedway, that wasn't NASCAR that put up those billboards, it was the track. To me this is no different. If people don't come out to the race, that's on the track, not the series. Do I think IndyCar should be more proactive and expect more from its tracks? Sure. Do I think they need to hold the track's hands? No. We are dealing with successful, multi-million dollar businesses here, that are being run by smart, well-educated people. They know what works and what doesn't.

I really get frustrated with the idea that any time a race fails, the blame fits on the shoulders of IndyCar. It also goes on the shoulders of people who are bad business partners. It's clear that Pocono didn't go all-out on the promotion of this race, and why should they? I've long contended in this space that IndyCar needs to work with business partners that are in this to be good business partners. Fortunately over the last few years they have found lots of them, and the core of the series should be built around that. That's just good business. If someone doesn't want to be a good business partner and doesn't want to help grow the series and their own individual race, I say screw them. That may lead to the not-so-Utopia-type of series we wish we had, where we race at places like Michigan, Phoenix, Chicagoland or Road America and everything is awesome like the 1990s again, where only 2-3 teams could win races and most oval races were won by a lap or more, but at least the hope is that IndyCar is working with people who don't crap on us all, either.

Rant over.

Points: As mentioned, Power and HCN are tied at the top with 446 points, while Simon Pagenaud is hanging in there in P3, 44 points behind. Montoya is fourth and lurking, 55 points back, while Ryan Hunter-Reay, who dropped out early with suspension problems, is P5 with 388 points.

Next week: Iowa! I'll be on the ground in Newton for Saturday night's race, and am excited about my first trip out there. Can't wait!