Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kanaan Strong at Kentucky - Franchitti Flies (Again!!!)

I thought Michigan was wild and crazy but last night's Indy Racing League event at Kentucky may have topped it. Darion doesn't recognize the checkers are out and gets airborne again. Danica almost hits a safety truck after blowing a tire. Helio and Kanaan bang wheels and they both escape. My man Sam spins out and takes Wheldon with him. And AJ Foyt IV was leading the race on the last restart with 10 laps to go. I never would have believed it.

But there was Kanaan, fastest all night, overtaking Foyt relatively easily in the end, to put an exclamation point on a sweltering Kentucky evening and close in on the points leaders with just three races to go. I loved every minute of it, although it seems lately like I am at the wrong place at the wrong time when the real theatrics happen. I had just shot TK crossing the start-finish line under the checkered flags and turned to head to victory lane, when I heard the crowd gasp and that distinctive "WHUMP" sound these cars make when someone hits the wall. My first thought was "goodness - the race is over and people are still crashing" and I could then see Dario sliding along the wall in Turn 1. THEN I saw the video replay on the track's big screen and OMG! Is Dario the luckiest driver around or what? He needs to go out on a boat or something for a few days, stay off the asphalt and let someone else drive him wherever he needs to go.

These last 5 weeks have been unbelievable: Nashville IRL, Mid Ohio IRL, Brickyard 400, Michigan IRL and Kentucky. I've never had a run like this in all the years I've been doing racing photography, and despite late night drives home the last two weekends, I wouldn't trade it for just about anything.

Except maybe hitting the lotto. Then I could do this every weekend!

I'll be anxiously watching the next two IRL races (Sonoma and Belle Isle in Detroit) before I get the chance to go to Chicagoland for the finale, so let's home things calm down a bit before the real money is on the line for the season title. It looks like a three man race right now between Dario, Dixon and TK so it should make for an interesting end to a crazy IRL season.

C'ya at the track! BTW - US Nationals are next up for me, so I can't wait to see the straight-liners pound some asphalt at O'Reilly Raceway Park.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

It's A Beautiful Day at Kentucky Speedway for Racing

After last weekend's rain delay at Michigan, it sure is nice to have a good day to shoot a race. Especially an IndyCar race. Rain has seemed to follow me this year: Indy, Nashville, Michigan. Today we should be good to go on time. And I'm happy to be in the Kentucky Speedway media center right now to catch a little relief from the heat outside.

The Indy Pro Series finished their pre-race warmup session a little while ago and were running faster than the pole speed. The scheduling is a bit odd, with the Pro Series race following the Indycars, but that's obviously a TV mandate, so the IRL will run through the twilight and the Pro Series under the full lights with a 9 pm start time. It should make for an interesting photo challenge, adjusting to the changing lighting conditions.

But the main event promises to be fast and furious and I have to wonder if the events of last weekend have been forgotten by everyone. Have Helio and Vitor made up? The Indianapolis Star seemed to imply that this morning but I have to wonder. And will Dario race for the win or be conservative and try to pad his points lead? A DNF now and strong finishes by Dixon and others could really spell trouble for his championship hopes.

And my man Sam Hornish Jr. really needs to go for it tonight to close the gap to the season leaders. The next two races are not his strongsuits (road/street courses) so he needs a good finish tonight and to keep the car on the track the next two races to be in contention for the Chicagoland finale.

Should be a good show tonight. Stay tuned. Strap in.


Friday, August 10, 2007

IRL Kentucky Next - Championship Battle Intensifies

I didn't think I was going to be at Kentucky Speedway this weekend, but things changed quickly once Don Hamilton of American Motor Journal called me on Tuesday. This will be my second visit to the great Bluegrass State venue this year, as I was there Memorial Day weekend for the Frank Kimmel Street Stock Enduro event on assignment for Stock Car Racing magazine. The issue with my pix and Don's story should be on the newsstands this week. Now I get to go back and see the Indycars after a wild weekend at Michigan, my first race at Kentucky since 2000 when the Indy Racing League first went there.

That was also the race where I first discovered Sam Hornish Jr, as he was racing for the tiny PDM team and had one of the fastest cars all day. He had a great wheel-to-wheel duel with Jacques Lazier for about 30 or 40 laps and I was immediately a Hornish fan. Not many guys could do what he did in that PDM ride, and he was clearly the star of the day. I shot video that day as a spectator and thoroughly enjoyed the race.

This time I get to go back with full media credentials to shoot digital 35mm for Don, hopefully from some of the photo holes on the outside wall, so that should be fun. It's a great racetrack with a very spectator- and competitor-friendly layout. Nice garage area, lots of room to work, the entire track visible from every seat, and an escalator system to the tunnel connecting the infield with the grandstands area.

Hopefully everyone will have settled down after last week's mayhem, but I kind of doubt it. Kentucky is another track where there's lots of room to race side by side, so it should be exciting. Dario needs to stay at the front to manage his points lead, and the other contenders will need to keep the wheels on their cars to keep pace for the driver's championship. I expect Helio to come out with fire in his belly after last week's contact with Vitor and the MIS frontstretch wall, so keep en eye on him. It will be the usual contenders - AGR (except for Marco), Ganassi and Penske, so shut up, go fast and turn left.

Talk soon!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Kanaan Escapes Wet & Wild Michigan with IRL Win

As someone once sang, "What a long strange trip it's been." When the team haulers were blitzing past me on I69 coming back to Indy last night, I couldn't help but think about all that has happened with open wheel racing at Michigan over the years. And just as I wrote the other day, anything can happen up there and often does. Sunday was no exception, as the scariest moment of the day involved Dario Franchitti in a blow-over style flip on the backstretch that decimated the IRL field, leaving mainly his AGR teammates to fight it out. Once Danica had to make an extra late pit stop to change her right rear tire, it was just down to TK and Marco to sort out. After hours and hours of rain and waiting, Tony was able to claim the trophy, but judging from his comments in the post-race media conference room, he was not a happy camper.

Winning at Michigan still means something, and there's a special chutzpah that IRL drivers have to have at that place. Tony made several comments after the race about lack of respect being shown for fellow drivers but from my viewpoint it was a typical Michigan day. Lots of two- and three-wide, sometimes four-wide racing. Slicing and dicing up and down the field. Too many close calls to count. Car carnage. Thank goodness the rain gods stayed away finally and that no one was hurt in Dario's mess. When he came back to the pits after the accident, he looked shaken to me, and there were hugs all around from teammates and AGR crew members.

Let's hope they come to their senses before Kentucky this weekend. I want to see a tight battle for the season championship, not cars going airborne and taking out a third of the pack in one fell swoop. They will say that it was just racing, and from my experience at Michigan, that is probably true, but yesterday was a perfect example of how open wheel, and especially Indycars, require nerve and skill unmatched by any other racing series.

But that's just my opinion, and I'm just a photographer. Blame it on too much time in the sun this summer. Michigan Indycars - we will miss ye.


Sunday, August 5, 2007

Michigan IRL - Rain Delay (Again)

I left Indy before 5 this morning and started seeing ligthning in the distance as I approached Fort Wayne. All hell broke loose as I got to Fort Wayne and the skies opened up. At a McDonald's there, the manager was kind enough to log me into their wifi setup so I didn't have to pay, and I checked weather radar on and decided to go cross country the rest of the way. It made the trip a little longer, but I knew we were going to be delayed today so I could take a more leisurely pace.

I got to MIS at around 10 and it rained non-stop from the time I left Fort Wayne until just before 2 p.m. here. The jet dryers are on the track, the rains have stopped and crews are warming up the engines in the garage area. Anyone who was here last year knows the IRL will do whatever they can to get this race in today, since I heard in the photo meeting this morning that they have to be in Kentucky Thursday for Saturday night's race.
More later.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Franchitti Takes Michigan IRL Pole - Hornish 2nd

Well it looks like Dario may be in the catbird seat to extend his points lead over Scott Dixon tomorrow at Michigan International. But anything can happen at MIS - and often does.

Take last year for instance, when this picture was taken from high up in the main grandstands. My son and I went up with my brother and his son as spectators and after walking through the souvenir areas and killing time race morning, as we got to the stands a huge storm blew in so the race was delayed and they ran incident free until almost dark, with Helio taking the win. My first visit to Michigan was in 1981 and they never did get the race run that weekend due to rain. In 83, we got chased out of the stands by a tornado warning and then John Paul Jr. won on the last lap after Rick Mears had a rare crash. In 85, the tires were suspect and the race got postponed a week and then Danny Ongais barrel rolled down the backstretch. In 89, Scott Pruett and Al Unser Jr. dueled wheel to wheel in a fantastic finish for one of Pruett's few Indycar wins. I've camped at the track, taken a motor home, stayed in motels, done banzai one-day runs up and back (like I will this year), and gone as a spectator and as a photographer with credentials. All of this is from memory so the details might be a tad fuzzy, but the point is I have great memories of this awesome track where you get to see the Indycars run flat out, three and four wide, with pack racing and usually high drama at the end. It was even more incredible when the large fields were there before the split and they ran 500 miles instead of 400 like they will tomorrow.

So of course I'm saddened that MIS and the IRL could not agree on a date for next season, and I hope that is only temporary. I'm looking forward to adding to the memory banks this year and hope to bring back more great pix from one of open wheel's most storied race tracks.

More soon, hopefully from the media center at the track after the race.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Brickyard 400: Stewart Kisses Bricks at Indy Again

At the end of a wild day at Indianapolis, Tony Stewart got by Kevin Harvick and took his second win in the Brickyard 400. The native Hoosier managed to avoid the carnage throughout the race, as nearly half the field tried to knock down the walls. Thank goodness for the SAFER barriers. Harvick wasn't too happy about the way Tony made the winning pass and faded to 7th after taking the lead on the last restart with about 20 laps to go. My man Tony pulled out some short track magic with less than 10 laps to go with an under-over move that started in Turn 1 which Harvick couldn't match, and was finished in Turn 3 with a dandy chop down to the white line. They went past me at the beginning of the backstretch side by side, and for a moment I thought they might crash each other out and hand Montoya the win. It seemed like they were heading for a finish like Emmo and Al Jr. in the 500 in 1989, but I knew Tony wasn't going to go down without a fight and Harvick was a sitting duck as Tony clearly had the fastest car all day long.

JPM was extremely impressive too, but that's no surprise to me. He was awesome as a 500 rookie in 2000 and Juan displayed the same smooth car control in his first stock car run at Indy as he did in an Indycar. It was fun to see the crowd react to Tony's charge at the end, and Juan seemed to have a good following as well, becoming the first driver to run Indy in all three major auto races. Montoya will win on an oval sometime this year, I'm sure of it, and Tony is set to charge for another season title, having now won two in a row after being shut out the whole season prior to the last two weekends.

While the stock car brigade packed up their mangled equipment and headed off to Pocono after Indy, I'm going to Michigan for the Indycar race this weekend in what may be the last IRL race on the fast high banks for awhile. It hardly seems possible that 1981 was my first trip to MIS, and I've seen a lot of great races up there. Hopefully this weekend will follow that pattern as well.

In the meantime, go fast and turn left. Go Tony Go!