Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Countdown to Indy: 3 Days to Opening Day

If it's May, this must be Indianapolis and we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Best of all, I no longer have to ask the question: "Is it May yet?"

Sunday May 4th the Speedway opens for practice for the 92nd Indy 500 and most of the new teams will get a jump on the competition with the first two days of practice reserved for drivers who have to go through the Rookie Orientation Program (ROP). Many of the former Champ Car guys have been designated "rookies" due to a lack of oval racing experience, but the chance to run hundreds of laps over the first 12 hours or so of green light time Sunday and Monday will do wonders for those drivers and teams. They're still rookies at Indy until they run in the 500, but the caliber of the new teams is sure to make for a very competitive pair of qualifying weekends.

Over the next few days, I will be adding regular posts with pix from practice days, plus I will do my own observations and predictions as track time winds down to Pole Day May 10th. Right now there are 34 car-driver combinations with today's announcement that 1996 winner Buddy Lazier will again drive the 91 car for Hemelgarn. A total of 39 driver combos are expected and I think the number could rise to as many as 42. Just a hunch, but second week deals seem to materialize out of thin air sometimes, and I'll bet Paul Tracy is in one of those.

The field should be highly competitive from front to back, and I really hope the first three qualifying days are dry so the 11-11-11 format can be fully experienced this year for the first time. The Pole will go down to the 6:00 o'clock gun just like last year, and I'd be willing to bet that at least one of the new teams will be in the first day qualifiers, probably Justin Wilson, and EJ Viso could make it two. Tomas Scheckter can't be overlooked with the Junior Penske team. Dixon and Wheldon would seem to be the favorites for P1 (BTW - don't you just love Dan's new choppers?), and Kanaan and Danica will lead the charge for Andretti Green with Helio in the mix as well for Roger Penske. They will continue to trim the cars out as Pole Day goes along and the bravest will take the spot - but perhaps only if they can go out last on the day!

I doubt Milka Duno will be able to crack the Field of 33 and Marty Roth is another one who is questionable. Both will probably find the SAFER barrier at least once and that could relegate them to spectator roles. One or two of the new guys will probably also test the walls getting used to the track and sustained high speeds, but their teams are strong enough to rebound, assuming the parts issues have all been resolved.

Honda will continue its record lack of engine failures, and I'd be very surprised if anyone is disappointed with the action the first week of what promises to be one of the best Mays in many years. Let's hope the fans come back and everyone roots for their favorites regardless of former series affiliation. Let's go racing!

Winchester Sees Sunshine - Hagen Takes USAC Checkers

At last the clouds parted in Indiana and a beautiful day for racing (and photography) was available. After a week's delay, Winchester Speedway opened its 2008 season with an excellent crowd and an entertaining doubleheader featuring the USAC National Sprint tour in the Rich Vogler Classic and the CRA late model stock cars. Darren Hagen took the USAC feature after surviving a wheel banging incident late in the race with Chris Windom while Scott Hantz took the CRA 100-lapper which was red flagged early after a multi-car crash that took out several competitors, including 13-year old Logan Ruffin who was making his Winchester debut.

Is it just me, or are these guys getting younger all the time? Thirteen years old in a stock car on the World's Fastest Half Mile? Maybe I'm just getting old.

Anyway, the more I get back to the short tracks, the more I realize how much I love these places. Lincoln Park. Salem. Winchester. Hopefully Eldora - soon. These are the places fans flock to in order to be close to the action, places where you can see the whole track, buy a pit pass and listen in on the crews and drivers at close range, see the local guys make good and have a chance to move on. This is where it starts for everyone with a dream to go to Indy or Daytona. Of course the route to Indy has changed dramatically over the years, but the roots are still there. I heard on the PA that Eddie Sachs won the first sprint car race at Winchester in 1956 so you know you're somewhere special when that kind of announcement is made.

I'm off the short track circuit for awhile and heading for the big track this weekend - right here in my hometown. Check back as I post frequently as the buildup for the 500 gets underway in earnest. At last. Meanwhile enjoy the following pix from Winchester for the time being.

Winchester USAC Sprints & CRA Late Model Stocks

Monday, April 21, 2008

Danica Makes History In Japan; Champ Car Finale at the Beach

OK Danica. Now you've gone and done it. Tired of the "when will you win question"? Just wait until you get to Indy in less than two weeks. Everyone's going to want a piece of you and they'll want to know when you'll Indy. You almost did it on your first try so why not now, with some laps behind you and AGR's team savvy keeping you calm? It could happen. I'm looking forward to Pole Day as that should be one heckuva shootout for P1.
I'm beginning to feel like a rain magnet so far this racing season, but you can't blame me for the weather at Motegi! First, Eldora was washed out 2 weeks ago. Then last weekend at Salem the ARCA show was delayed. Now yesterday the USAC Sprint Cars and CRA Super Series at Winchester had to be postponed to next Sunday just as the USAC gang was hitting the track for practice. No big surprise as I keep saying, but I'm glad I was prepared.

As a result, I got to get back to Indy early, and even though the old ELO song lyric "It's raining all over the world" was going through my head, I got home in time to watch part of the Nationwide Series from Mexico City (c'mon Boris - please tell us how you really feel about Ambrose, will ya?) but then I just had to watch the Japan Indycar race on DVD, as I had just enough time to watch it before the Long Beach telecast came on. I knew early in the day that Danica had won her first race, since the local TV morning sports guy spoiled the surprise as soon as I turned on the tube. I wanted to see how she managed a longer fuel run than anyone else (can't say it's a weight advantage anymore boys) and was excited to see how everyone reacted. They know good and well what a boost her win is going to be for Indycars. Not surprisingly, the conspiracy theorists were weighing in on Wind Tunnel later that night by suggesting that Danica was gifted the win by Helio and Team Penske. Since when does Penske give away wins to anybody? Get real.

The same theory had Graham Rahal being handed the win at St. Pete. Did they even watch the race? That kid was flat fast, and he had the best car at the end. So I was anxious to see how the Long Beach Grand Prix would pan out as an IRL event. Rahal made a couple of rookie mistakes and I must say I was very pleased with how the IRL and ESPN handled the whole show. The race wasn't all that interesting for me once Power jumped everyone at the start and Wilson fell out, but the fact that Tony George, Helio and Danica made it there from Japan was a great marketing move. The season is starting off with some great momentum leading up to Indy, where many of the new teams will get the first three days of track time to themselves for their rookie orientations with everyone's eyes on Pole Day May 10th. It will come down to the 6 o'clock gun again this year, of that I am certain, just like last year.

As for me, I will head back to Winchester again this Sunday and probably have to record the Kansas IRL event which should be very interesting to see how much ground the former Champ Car teams have made up since Homestead. My American Motor Journal deadline will loom that evening so I will have my work cut out for me, especially if the weather intervenes once again. By then, the Countdown to Indy will be in single digits. I can almost hear them saying "We are Green!"

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Countdown to Indy Part 2 - Is It May Yet?

I saw my first new Indy 500 pace car on the streets of Indianapolis last weekend. What's the big deal about that? Well, living in Indianapolis, seeing the new 500 pace cars for each year's race being driven around town is the surest sign of spring around here this side of robins in your yard. Indiana weather this time of year is notoriously unpredictable - Salem last weekend was a perfect example and I've experienced snow on opening day at Indy in May in the past . But seeing pace cars out and about means May is almost here.

Dignitaries and "500 Festival" personnel are typically loaned the new pace cars to drive each year as rolling promotions and to reward folks for their service to managing the events and hoopla that surrounds the buildup to the 500. Soon enough the echoes of "the world's largest PA system" will bounce between the giant grandstands at one of my most favorite places on earth.

I've jokingly said to family and friends that when I'm gone, they can take my ashes and sprinkle them on my "spot" in Turn 2 and my soul will be happy. I am sure the Speedway would frown on that, but as I said, it's a joke. A couple of years ago, I estimated how much time I had spent at IMS over the years, first as a fan and then as a credentialed photographer. In round figures, if you put all the days I have spent out there back-to-back-to-back, it would amount to something like 14 straight months of my life. Every day. In a row.

And it's probably more now than when I did that estimate, but that amount of time spent at Indy tells you all you really need to know about me. And I'm not the only person who schedules vacation time to work at the Speedway or sneaks away at every opportunity just to watch a few laps. Yellow shirts. Safety crew guys. The numbers of people who feel just like I do would probably surprise people who aren't from around here.

My birthday in late May falls right around the running of the 500 every year too, so the whole month is a celebration for me. If the weather's good, I'm either at the track or thinking about being there. If it's raining, then I'm probably looking at the weather radar and trying to time my escape from work to the moment the track gets dry and the green light comes on for the cars to hit the track. With IMS timing & scoring now available live on the Speedway's website, total immersion in May's track action is now possible. Not only that, but if you're on the westside of Indianapolis while practice or qualifying is going on, if the wind is right you can hear the cars miles away, so you don't even need to be at the track to know they're running. Drive down Georgetown Road or 16th Street now and you can already see the "Welcome Race Fans" banners or the people selling race day parking spaces in their front yards.

All of these signs of spring and speed lead me to ask another question: I wonder how many laps I've seen run out there? My head spins just thinking about it. So I better stop there before I hit the wall and someone takes my picture.

On this weekend of Motegi and Long Beach, I can't help but think about my own personal history at the Speedway, and it is THE SPEEDWAY as far as I'm concerned. Next year is 100 years since the track opened. In 2011, they will run the 500 for the 100th time. It's still hard for me to believe that this will be my 35th Indy 500, with an unbroken string of 33 straight starting in 1976. God willing, I'll make it to the next 35 (or more). They'll probably have to pry my camera from my hands if the cars are still on the track and I'm within earshot.

Motegi qualifying was rained out so point standings set the field with: Helio, Dixon, Kanaan, Marco, Wheldon, Danica, Carpenter, Foyt 4, Mutoh and Hunter-Reay fill the first 5 rows. Another good opportunity for the Vision team, and a great shot for rookie Mutoh in just his third oval track race to show well in his home country. Not sure if I can manage to stay up for the live telecast tonight, but I'll let you know what I think once I see the race soon enough. Count on it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Allgaier Repeats in Salem ARCA; IRL Off to Motegi (& Long Beach)

After a rain delay of over two hours, youngster Justin Allgaier held off Sprint Cup vet Ken Schrader in a green-white-checker finish at Salem Speedway yesterday to take back to back wins at the historic half mile. Frigid conditions kept the crowd down but they missed one heckuva show, both by the ARCA participants and the track crew who did yeoman's work getting the banking ready for racing. 30 minutes before the race finally started around 4:15 Salem time, rain sprinkles still hovered in the air. It was almost as cold as the Indy 500 in 1992, and that race was dubbed the "Ice Race" by many who were there.

I'm really coming to like the fast Salem track, although this event was by far the coldest I have experienced in "God's Country" in southern Indiana. But what do you expect from Indiana weather in the spring? Wait five minutes and it will change is the old Hoosier adage, but that wasn't the case this day, as the clouds remained gray and low all day, and you could see your breath.

Schrader sat on the pole and erstwhile F1 pilot Scott Speed was extremely racy and a quick study in his short track, high banked debut, leading several laps after snagging the lead on a restart like any veteran would have. But Justin was fastest when it mattered, making his only pit stop at the right time and saved just enough tires to keep Schrader at bay. Frank Kimmel was involved in a number of skirmishes but still managed to finish 4th, following his replacement in the 46 car, Matt Carter.

Ironically, we walked under the grandstands shortly after we arrived around 11 in the morning to see what condition the track was in, and out walked Justin himself. I asked him what had been said during the driver's meeting and he said "We have lights and they're going to get the race in one way or another today." So we knew right then we'd have a long day, but it worked out great in the end - for us and for Justin. I was especially happy after getting washed out at Eldora last weekend that I could actually shoot some pictures! So my racing season is underway at last and my work for American Motor Journal has already been shipped off for the next edition. The following link has several pix from the event and gives you some idea of how cold it was during the driver autograph session. Scott Speed is at right and Ken Butler III is next to him with bundled up fans in the background:

Salem ARCA Kentuckiana 200 April 13, 2008

Indy Racing League to Motegi (& Long Beach)

By now, all the IRL team gear is in Japan and Champ Car prepares for its last race ever - at Long Beach, where IRL points will be awarded. So it's strange to see this combination in play with only 20 days now until practice opens for the Indy 500. So the fields will be split between two series for the last time, even though racers at both events will earn IRL points. While all of that is going on, I will be drying out and warming up from Salem and heading over to Winchester Speedway for a USAC sprints & CRA Super Series doubleheader this Sunday.

The irony of the IRL's roots was not lost on me this weekend as I read the Salem Speedway program where greats like Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Roger McCluskey and others have their names etched in the track's Victory Lane records. This weekend Mario and AJ will be in Japan with their IRL racing sons while the USAC guys run the Rich Vogler Classic 30 at Winchester. As Salem is where Rapid Rich lost his life in a USAC race, it hit me that the sprint cars will be running on another historic track in Indiana, albeit only a half-mile in length, as the Indycars race on an oval half a world away to prep for the big track in Indianapolis less than three weeks from now. How did we get here from there?

It doesn't really matter anymore, but running in Vogler's honor is a fitting tribute for every Hoosier kid who dreamed of racing at Indy. We all know the difficulties those kids face today and many of the best in NASCAR have followed in Vogler's footsteps with a big left turn to the taxicab circuit somewhere along the way: Stewart, Newman & Gordon being the most notable of that group. So who's to say someone running this weekend in Winchester won't end up in Victory Lane at Indy? Some would argue that it is sad that it will probably be in the Brickyard 400 and not the Indy 500, but I couldn't care less. I'm a fan first, a photographer second, and a Hoosier above all. So I look forward to being able to say "I saw them when..." as I bore my grandkids to death someday with tales of what the good old days used to be like.

These are the good old days. I'm glad to be a part of keeping track of the action on the track. See you soon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rahal the Rainmeister at IRL St. Pete

Not surprisingly, the Champ Car guys showed their mettle at St. Petersburg on the street/airport circuit and really spiced up the soggy show in the process. What was surprising was that Graham Rahal survived an early spin to splash his way to his first Indycar win in his very first start, especially after crashing in Miami testing and missing the first race of the season. I expected Justin Wilson to be the stronger of the two Newman Haas Lanigan team members, and he showed the way for a number of laps. But Rahal was clearly the fastest at the end.

So now we've seen the tale of the series played out dramatically in the first two races. The more experienced oval track teams fared best at Miami and the road racers overcame unfamiliarity with equipment with driver savvy to run at the front at St. Pete. Everyone now gets time to go their separate ways, with the traditional IRL teams heading for Motegi Japan and the Champ Car brigade having their final fling in the Panoz chassis at Long Beach the weekend of April 19th. Then everyone gets back together for Kansas and Indianapolis opens the following week.

I was really glad to see the increased competition level, which is what I think everyone was hoping for with the merger complete. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, and I can see that in effect now in the IRL. The backmarkers are going to be shown up more quickly now than ever before, as the top teams are more numerous and the caliber and depth of driver talent has definitely risen. With reports of as many as 39 car-driver combinations being available for Indy, the month of May should be truly spectacular. I might even have to spend more time out there for the first few days of rookie orientation when the new teams and drivers get dedicated track time. By the time bump day rolls around, we could be looking at the closest and most competitive field in Indy 500 history. I sure hope so.

I go to Salem this weekend for the ARCA show and the weather could be the greatest challenge with typical early spring variation at play in Indiana: warm and sunny one day, cold and snowy/rainy the next. The forecast calls for the latter this weekend so we'll have to make the trip and see what happens. The drivers will have the warmest seats in the house!

Is it May yet?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

USAC at Eldora Postponed; McDowell's Wild Ride at Texas

I'm sitting in Tallmadge, Ohio this morning outside Akron, feeling the disappointment of another weather related racing delay. I thought I'd had enough rain delays in 2007 but it's bitten me again with Eldora Speedway's announcement that the USAC sprint car show has been postponed. The track website list Saturday May 10th for the make-up date for the event, which also happens to be Pole Day at Indianapolis for the 500. So I'll drive back to Indy today with no pix to show for it. The good news is I got to spend some time with my Mom and help her with some items around her property. So I guess I'll just pack up later and start thinking about the ARCA show at Salem next weekend.

Speaking of ARCA, my man Michael McDowell, last year's ARCA rookie of the year, had a horrific tumble at Texas yesterday but walked away unscathed. I don't know all the details but I am positive something broke on the car, as my experience with him has been he doesn't make mistakes that get him in that kind of trouble. He rarely put a scratch on his ESR cars last year in ARCA, so it seems unlikely he would have had this problem without mechanical failure, especially since he was already locked into the Sprint Cup race lineup. But I could be wrong. His teammate Reutemann qualified very well (he had to) so maybe Michael was trying a little too hard to get into the top 10. You don't mess with the fast Texas track though, so perhaps we chalk this one up to a rookie mistake. He'll start with a provisional tomorrow so I hope he can make a charge from 40th in his backuo. He needs to stay in the Top 35 in owner points and I think he'll recover from this and be strong tomorrow and in the weeks ahead.

Here's a link to the video posted on YouTube:

Talk soon.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

USAC Heads to Eldora

And my racing season finally gets underway! Woooo racin'!

While everyone else has been running round and round since Daytona, I finally get to hit the road this weekend and watch the slideways brigade on the storied Eldora track that my man Tony Stewart owns. It will be my first visit after a couple of aborted (or washed out) attempts, and I hope to see the USAC sprint cars run at several tracks this spring and summer. It will help balance out my photo work for American Motor Journal (AMJ) and give me the opportunity to really get back to some roots racing, as I shot loads of sprints and midget races in the 90's. It should be a blast.

Then next weekend it's back to the Salem Speedway high banks for the ARCA show where I'll get to do double duty for AMJ and work on a feature with AMJ publisher Don Hamilton for Stock Car Racing magazine. Salem is fast becoming one of my favorite tracks as it is easy to shoot from a variety of vantage points without walking miles and miles like at many of the bigger ovals. Pit road is kind of insane though, as there is barely room for the cars pitting and the entry road between the walls. The ARCA guys run a variety of lines and it's all easy to see from the infield. Standing on the pit wall between Turns 1 & 2, you can almost see the whole track except where the timing and scoring stand blocks the view. It would be nice if they got a scoring pylon though, since their top 5 scoreboard on the backstretch is impossible to see from most vantage points. With earplugs in, forget about hearing the PA system when the cars are at speed! For the ARCA race, I always try to find out from a team member when they plan to pit since it's usually a one-stop race and filled with cautions.

Then I wrap up April at Winchester for the CRA Super Series tandem with USAC sprints again, this time on pavement. The following weekend, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens for Indy 500 practice, so the next seven weeks you should hear (and see) a lot from me as my memory cards get repeatedly filled and emptied. Another few thousand images or so will add nicely to the collection.

Ya'll come back now, ya hear?