Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dixon Handed IRL Opener at Homestead

Now the IRL braintrust can focus on St. Pete, since the first race under the unified league banner went off as well as could be expected. Many commented that the new teams were happy to go home (mostly) with their cars still in one piece, and it was clear from watching the race on ESPN2 that the returning IRL teams had what the late Mark Donahue always sought: an unfair advantage - in this case it was sheer familiarity with equipment.

The video of Tony Kanaan all locked up trying to avoid the spinning car of newcomer Ernesto Viso was incredible and I really felt bad for Tony, who I had called for the race win and who appeared to have it in the bag after the last round of pit stops. And that after he escaped a wheel banging incident with his buddy Helio early on! THAT was close!

So Dixon got a gift win and finished where he started: P1. I was really impressed with Marco's run in the lead most of the night, and he may have the oval track handling figured out after all. The Vision guys charged back into the top 10 after getting their qualifying marks DQ'd for tech violations which wiped out their top 3 starting spots and they had to start from the back.

I was most impressed with the way the returning IRL guys handled the debut for the new Champ Car teams: very gracious comments and some of the most professional driving I have seen in years. I still think the new teams will be strong by the time the 500 rolls around 8 weeks from today once they've run a few thousand miles during May. The fact that Tony George paired up experienced IRL teams with the new guys was a true racer's gesture. Now the rumors that Direct TV will sign on as a series sponsor for 2009 could pump new excitement into a series which has been largely overlooked by the masses since the IRL first began racing in 1996. Thank goodness.

Maybe now fans will get the idea that this is still the most exciting racing on the planet for close competition and wheel to wheel action. I sure hope so. These guys are the fastest show on wheels and can win fans back with more performances like last night. But watch out for the Champ Car guys this weekend at St. Pete: drivers can overcome equipment gremlins better on a street course than about anywhere else so I think Power, Wilson, Servia et al will make this the most spectacular St. Pete event yet.

But I'm still pulling for TK. Helio, Dixon, Marco and Wheldon will be close behind. See ya!

McDowell Shines in Sprint Cup Debut at Martinsville

My new favorite driver Michael McDowell showed his stuff for Michael Waltrip Racing today in his Sprint Cup debut at the aged paperclip track in Martinsville, Virginia. Michael ran strong in the top 20 for most of the day, and fought to stay on the lead lap until the very end when a bump cut a tire and dropped him to 26th for the day. The warmest place at the track was probably inside the cockpit where Michael looked right at home.

As I've said before: keep an eye on this guy! He may even win one this season. And don't be surprised if it's on a road course where he might sneak up on people who don't know about his karting, Champ Car and Rolex Series background.

I was fortunate to do some work for Michael the last couple of seasons while he ran ARCA and got to speak to him on a number of occasions. You couldn't ask for a nicer, more approachable guy and I am so happy for him that his hard work is paying off at the top of the stock car world. I was always impressed with his ability to be quick and clean and I suspect that will bode well for him as he challenges the established teams and drivers in Sprint Cup this season. I'd be willing to bet he will routinely outrun his more experienced teammates this season, especially once he starts going to tracks for a second visit. And as much as I like the open wheel guys like Hornish and Dario, I've got to pull for Michael this year for Rookie of the Year. And he'll do it with an abbreviated season!

Go fast. Turn left. Hang on. Go Micheal, go!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Today We Race: Together At Last

The opening of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is now just 36 days away and the 500 itself will be run 57 days from now. As the countdown continues to arguably the most relevant Indy 500 in many years, today the best in American open wheel racing gather at Florida's Homestead Speedway. Time will tell if the historic reunification of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car brokered by Tony George will have staying power. But when I hear TG state that the 25/8 rule implemented in 1996 at Indy was a mistake, I have even greater hopes for the future of Indycars. In the modern era of blame and shame tactics, how often to you hear a highly visible leader admit they made a mistake? Its virtually unheard of. I hope the Champ Car fans will see this as an additional peacemaking gesture and show their true open wheel colors. Let's also hope the name "Indycar World Series" can be resurrected as Tony suggested. This time, it will really mean something.

So today we race. One series. Lots of newcomers to oval racing and much has already occurred in the last week that will shape the outcome of this race. Graham Rahal is out after crashing in testing, the team short on time and spares. Wheldon crashes during qualifying in the new 4-lap format. Vision Racing teammates Ed Carpenter and AJ Foyt IV will start second and third. But at the point is a man who should be no surprise to anyone: Scott Dixon. He could very well win tonight if he stays out front, as Scotty D knows how to run the huggy pole in these high downforce Dallaras better than about anyone. My pick is Helio, even though new teammate Ryan Briscoe outqualified him. With the new qualifying requirement, who knows who is really running on the edge and who is working on a balance for race day? Penske strategy will likely carry the day.

Seven of the former Champ Car drivers have been designated rookies for the year and that's probably a good thing with so many ovals on the schedule. But watch out for those guys at St. Pete next weekend, and at the Glen, Mid Ohio and Sonoma. Danica will finally win a race this year but she will not be able to match her teammates' speed on a regular basis, nor the racecraft of Tony Kanaan. Marco will probably take a road course win but let's hope he learns how to handle a loose race car on ovals or he will have plenty of DNF's just like last year. Will Power or Justin Wilson will probably win an oval race, maybe at Chicagoland Speedway, once they've got their oval legs and nothing to lose in the season finale. Wheldon can challenge for the season title if his crew corrects their pit and race tactic errors from last year, but crashing in qualifying doesn't bode well for Danny-boy. Methinks he may be trying too hard. Vision just might have it together to get someone in victory lane if Homestead qualifying is any indication. Bruno Junqueira knows the fast way at Indy so he could challenge for several wins this year if the team gives him the proper support; but I doubt it. It should be fun to watch.

My pick for the season title though is Helio Castroneves. I have had toruble being a Penske fan since his teams won Indy so often but I always liked Rick Mears and Sam Hornish, plus he's given Ryan Briscoe a new lease on his racing life with the ALMS Porsche ride and now a season seat in Indycars. Lord knows Helio has always been fast wherever he goes, and despite two Indy 500 wins, he's never been a season champion. Now it's his turn. Tony Kanaan will be right there with his childhood karting buddy, and Scott Dixon will certainly be in the mix as well.

So there you have it - one man's view. The usual suspects. A few surprises. All together now: let's go racing!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Honda Gears Up for IRL Challenge

I have to wonder if there was another agenda for Tony George's recent trip to Japan which ostensibly was to discuss changing the Motegi race date. I have no reason to believe that the race date wasn't a big item but could it be that TG was also making sure that Honda could produce enough engines for Indy and the larger IRL entry list through the rest of the season.

I don't have any inside information on that score, but there has been talk at Indy in recent years of Honda limiting their engine leases. Last year for instance, you could sign up for the whole month of May or get a shortened lease for the second week of practice and the rest of the month.

Honda has a huge investment in the IRL and the last thing they would want to see is having a shortage of engines hampering the series success. Having worked some with Japanese auto companies in years' past, I think Honda would want to be sure their image is not tarnished by a lack of engines, or worse, a spate of engine failures. Since Toyota left the IRL, it seems generally accepted that Honda has provided a detuned engine which in its 2007 form was virtually bullet proof. I can't remember a single engine failure last season. The current rev limiter package also helps make sure the bottom doesn't drop out of their engines and since teams can't do anything with the engine's internals, it's all up to Honda.

Long gone are the days when an Indycar engine would detonate in a plume of foul smelling smoke and oil down a racetrack. Now, Honda has a greater responsibility than ever before and I am certain Honda's QA/QC people are going to be pulling plenty of overtime between now and May to ensure their incredible reliability record remains intact. Anyone that has worked in manufacturing knows that ramping up production can lead to problems with the finished product, yet somehow I believe that Honda will exempt itself from that through its traditional attention to detail and zealous work ethic.

Time will tell if Honda can deliver the same goods as the past couple of seasons, but I am certain they will. And with Acura in the ALMS now, they have an alternate test bed for parts and a fertile training ground for their engineering staff to deal with whatever gremlins do surface. Somewhere in Japan, there are engineers monitoring telemetry every race: of that I am equally certain.

But my opinion isn't important. Tony George must think Honda can handle it, and his opinion is the only one that matters. After all, he knows who his important partners are in the IRL, and Honda is right at the top of the list. Can it be long before the series is known as the "Honda Indy Racing League"?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Countdown to the Indy 500

As I write this today, there are only 12 weeks to the Indy 500. 84 days. It is truly hard to believe that less than a month ago, the open wheel rumor mill really got cranking about a possible merger between the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series. And a week ago, it was finally done. I'm still pinching myself to be sure I'm awake.

What I don't find hard to believe is the vitriol that fans are still spewing about the merger and loss of their beloved CCWS. I don't blame them a bit, and that's one of the great things about being a race fan: passion. After all, two drugstore conglomerates might merge in the business world and no one gives a rat's ass so long as you can still go to the corner store and get your prescription filled. But merging the top US open wheel series is another story entirely and just like a merger or marriage gone bad, the hard feelings are going to take time to heal as there is always fallout, some of which is emotional and some financial.

Certainly we're seeing that already, as teams and the schedule are taking hits. With the news that Forsythe racing is closing up shop, Paul Tracy is out of a ride and a few dozen hard working support team members have to look elsewhere to stay in motorsports. Lots of money was spent developing the DP01 chassis for Champ Car and now those cars are museum pieces. Cosworth doesn't have customers anymore. And I can certainly understand how the folks in Cleveland would not be happy about suddenly finding themselves out of a race for 2008, as that event has become a showcase for the city's Erie lakefront development initiatives. Not only that, but having been to the event myself years ago, the course layout is most like an oval of any of the road courses, since it is fast and wide, and fans can see the whole track from their seats. Of course fans are going to be upset when these kinds of things happen. I expect the shakeout will continue through the middle of this year and Tony George has lots of fence mending to do to craft a 2009 schedule that shows off the best of Indycar racing for all its constituents - racers, fans, promoters and communities alike.

But racing is business and businesses must adjust to the marketplace. Tony George has been vilified over the years for changing objectives with the IRL. Plenty of blog posts exist that criticize him for modifying the original vision of an oval based series where the tradition of short track racers coming to Indianapolis could be kept alive. When the IRL started adding selected road and street courses, the howling reached a crescendo and critics ramped up their attacks. Yet how often in the business world do companies change their vision and marketing approach? It's happening in some corporate board room every single day. If they don't, they don't survive and that's what could have happened with Indycar racing if Tony hadn't done something. No one else has the financial wherewithal to make it happen. No one else was willing to go to the mat and make sure everyone could get cars and motors. And no one else has the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where 2009 will mark 100 years since the facility originally opened with balloon and motorcycle races on a crushed cinder track.

So now everyone can get down to business and go racing. Tony's grandpa saved the track from the bulldozers after World War II when developers eyed the property for housing development. I would suggest that Tony has saved Indycar racing from the scrapheap of motorsports series that peaked and then faded away. Only time will tell how Indycars will fare in the current marketplace as stock car racing has a huge head start. It's up to the fans now to decide. So as I've said before, get out and go to a race. Support what you love. Buy some IRL swag. Ignore those that pine for the good old days as they are never coming back, and let's make something greater happen under the sport's current vision. To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"

I hope to see you at 16th & Georgetown in a few short weeks. Let the healing process begin.

The following link will take you to pix of drivers or car owners from last season that you can expect to see in 2008 on the Indycar circuit. I am really looking forward to adding new faces to these galleries as the Champ Car guys come back, and I'll have more to say about the season ahead, the teams to watch for and the buildup to Indy as the weeks progress. Y'all come back now, ya hear?

Indy Racing League Drivers