Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Johnson Steals Sprint Cup Fiasco at the Brickyard

Goodyear and NASCAR should be ashamed. This year's Brickyard 400 was anything but a race, and for all of NASCAR's crowing about putting on a "show" and caring about the fans, the people who started leaving around lap 80 from the South Vista across from my shooting location in Turn 1 spoke volumes about the real story for this year's event. This will have to go down in racing history with some of the greatest sports blunders and the Speedway had nothing to do with it: don't let anyone tell you otherwise. In many ways this was worse than the F1 farce when the Michelin teams pulled off the Indy track a couple of years ago because everyone knows Bernie and his Euro pals never gave a rat's ass about racing at the Speedway. For an American based stock car series with a US tire manufacturer to come into town and mishandle this event is simply unconscionable.

It has taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts and try to calm down but I am still livid. While I understand all the talk about safety and not wanting anyone to get hurt if tires failed, racing is a dangerous sport in the first place and there are risks of tire or equipment failure every time they turn a wheel on a racetrack anywhere. So why wasn't this tire problem addressed between the April tire tests and now? Many people had to have known during Friday practice that there was a problem. Even Sunday morning on race day there was talk about an early competition yellow, which I can understand but EIGHT of them? That is just absurd. At least in 1985 at the Michigan CART event, when tires started blowing, they postponed the darned thing and brought in some proper tires. Of course we know why NASCAR couldn't do that this week - they have to be in Pocono Friday and they wanted to save the equipment. There were times during the race when I wanted to throw my camera equipment to the ground over what I was witnessing. When the people in South Vista started chanting "Let them race", I got even more upset. I was a fan before I was a photographer and I've never seen anything like the travesty that NASCAR foisted on us all Sunday.

Some called it the Competition Yellow 400. I call it BS. I felt like I had just experienced a traveling circus come to town where the performers were all smiling while selling snake oil and stealing everyone's wallets before hitting the road with a promise to return next year. I had a feeling something wasn't right Saturday afternoon during the practice sessions following qualifying, but I couldn't put my finger on it. What I saw was no one running in packs like in a normal happy hour. No one ran more than 3 or 4 laps at a time. People were lifting like crazy going into Turn 1 and again into Turn 2, so that told me the cars were seriously loose. And then while watching the talking heads on SPEED's "Victory Lane" show on Sunday night, I wanted to come through the TV set and punch Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer for all the hype they continued to lather on. All I could think of on the way home from the Speedway was "how are they going to dress this pig up?" Those guys tried lipstick and pretty dresses but it was still a porker in a slop pen. Contrast that show with Dave Despain's "Wind Tunnel", who doesn't appear to fear NASCAR for his job, and I think you get some idea that the truth lies somewhere in between. There were lots of empty seats in the south end of the Speedway Sunday and I doubt some of those folks will be back next year to the Brickyard.

Everyone's already asked the questions about lack of tire testing (only three teams in April when it was cool) and why Goodyear didn't act on what little data they had with the new car style, so I will take another tack and ask a few other questions. Why was there all the talk about "rubbering up" the track but no real track time allowed? Getting on the track for the first time Friday afternoon for a couple of hours isn't going to help anyone fix handling problems if they're not close right off the truck. Why not open up the track for practice from noon to 6 on Friday just like in May? Let them run some laps. Buy some more tires. Put some rubber down. And why isn't there another practice session Saturday morning before qualifying? Having two one hour sessions after qualifying makes no sense. If rubber on the track is an issue for these cars, then give them track time. Or is it more important for the teams to get their drivers out for sponsor promos and the other races in town at ORP? Do they come to race or just sell souvenirs? I keep saying to myself, "enough of the vitriol" but the more I write the more pissed I get that this debacle was allowed to grace the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

I've been to all 15 Brickyard events and though Indy is not a track that has historically been conducive to the side by side stock car action usually seen on the high banks, at least there has been drama most years, and they actually competed to win a 400 mile race, not a series of 25 mile sprints. If I wanted to see sprint races, I'd go to Kokomo or Bloomington or Paragon. In the end, I will say that the best car did appear to win this event -- and you will note that I have refused to call this thing a race in this blog post -- as Jimmie Johnson won the pole and was one of the few who actually appeared to be able to pass anyone under what little green flag time they had. So congratulations Jimmy, Chad and the Lowe's team. You owe us a race next year.

And NASCAR, don't you dare forget: 2009 will be 100 years since Carl Fisher and friends laid out the Speedway as an automotive proving ground for the fledgling auto industry in Indianapolis.

What are you going to prove on your return?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Yesterday USAC - Tomorrow NASCAR Hits the Bricks

Last night I got to go back to my roots again to shoot the USAC midget and Silver Crown series races at O'Reilly Raceway Park. The big cars are back and boy are they sweet, although they do look cumbersome compared to the midgets. One of the worst decisions USAC ever made was to try to introduce a long track car to replace the traditional Silver Crown vehicles. These are the closest race cars around to the heritage of the old champ cars that ran at Indianapolis in the roadster days. Plus the big boys from NASCAR were in town to have a fun night at ORP, with Carl Edwards there as a midget car owner, Kasey Kahne as an owner-driver of a midget, and Ryan Newman piloting a Silver Crown car. Tony Stewart was there too with his family and getting kudos for the charity work of his foundation with police dogs. I also saw Johnny Benson, and of course Billy Boat, former IRL driver, crewing for his son Chad, who unfortunately had a bad night.

It was a great opportunity for me to do some more work with flash photography and night racing, which has proven to be tricky. SOme guys are pushing all the way to 3200 ISO but adding "portable daylight" gives the pix a crisper look with more detail in my opinion. Now that I have a battery pack, I don't have to worry as much about carrying extra batteries or having the flash crap out in the middle of something. Another photo challenge.

So tomorrow it's back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where NASCAR brings the new car for the first time, and only a handful of teams have even tested the "COT". Little E was here for the Goodyear test a few weeks ago so he could have an advantage along with the other teams that came. But the real guys to watch are going to be Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart. Kyle because he's been winning everything in sight and loves to manhandle a loose race car, and Stewart because, well he's Tony and this place is home. He's won the Brickyard twice now and he can handle a loose car as well as anyone, especially at Indy where he's probably got more laps than anyone. I'll be back with more once I finish my assignments at IMS for American Motor Journal but in the meantime, click on the following photo slideshow to look at a few pix from last night at ORP. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Mid Ohio Action - Back Home Again in Indy

After driving roughly 1300 miles the last two weekends following Indycars to Nashville and Mid Ohio Sports Car Course, it's good to be back in Indy. Shooting digital is a blessing and a curse, I tell you! Flash cards hold a ridiculous number of images, even at the largest file sizes. Getting them saved, sorted and edited is time consuming.

But those are also good features of high speed digital photography as I get to re-live the race looking at the pix. Shooting at 5 of more frames per second is like watching a movie and blinking repeatedly -- you don't really "see" what the camera is capturing. An old rule of thumb is: if you see it you didn't get the picture. So I have to look at everything afterwards (and then watch the DVD recorded while at the race of course) to really understand what happened sometimes. It's especially bad on road courses where walking from place to place to shoot takes time, PA systems usually are woefully weak (with earplugs in, it's almost impossible to hear anything but car noise anyway), and the quest for variety in my images pushes me from spot to spot. It's all good.

This week, much of the racing world will focus on Indianapolis again, with the Sprint Cup teams converging on the westside for the Brickyard 400 for the 15th time. It's hard to believe there have been that many already! I'm ready to go, having picked up my credentials today to cover the event for American Motor Journal, and it will be nice to sleep in my own bed and still get to racetracks! I also get to shoot the USAC midgets and Silver Crown series run Thursday night at O'Reilly Raceway Park so that will be fun and another opportunity to perfect my high speed flash work. The only thing missing this year are boats, F1 and lawnmowers I suppose!

Click on the following image to see a collection of Indycar, Indy Lights and American LeMans series action from Mid Ohio. Post #101 and counting! Call me the rain man when you see me at the track and be sure to bring a poncho.

Indy Racing League Indy Lights American LeMans Series

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fans Swarm Mid Ohio for IRL & ALMS Double - Penskes Rule

There's a TV ad out now from an insurance company that has the tag line, "life comes at you fast" and that's certainly been the case for me lately. This weekend at Mid Ohio was an absolute whirlwind, leaving Indy at 6 a.m. Saturday, finishing editing over 1300 images Saturday night, then back up at 6 Sunday for a 7:15 photo meeting, rain, multiple races, then leaving the track finally at 6:30 and arriving home after 11:30 last night.

But it's all good and I'm sure the humongous crowd at Mid Ohio was thrilled with the show put on by the ALMS and Indycar series over the weekend. The Lights race Sunday was very entertaining too, since it rained right before the start and multiple yellows led to a confusing finish where the leader at the time pulled into the pits under yellow thinking he had won the race, but he came in too soon and gave the race away!

Right now I'm running again but wanted to get at least a couple pix up as I never had time this weekend. I'll come back later and add more here and on my picasa and flickr pages. In the meantime, I'm wondering if the IRL championship tables maybe turning with all the road courses coming up. Better check those standings each week from here to Chicagoland to see who might make a charge from the transition teams. Edmonton should be a true test since the champ car guys have been there before and IRL has not. Wilson was especially strong at Mid Ohio so I expect him to break through soon.

Back in a little while folks. Thanks for listening (if you're out there!). I've now done 100 posts on this blog so if you've been touching base every once in awhile, I thank you for that. Drop a comment off once in awhile!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Nashville IRL Notes

Having been back in Indy for a day now, I have had some more time to go through my pix from the races at Nashville Superspeedway and am generally pretty happy. I shot more with flash at high speed settings and there are more lessons learned every time I go to a racetrack it seems. Night races are tricky anyway and the lighting always seems better to the eye than the camera perceives it, so that's one. Another is the need to shoot at higher ISO and shutter speeds, even with the digital noise that brings sometimes. It's still better than pushing film to 1600 or higher. I'll take digital over film any day.

So now I set my sights on the Mid Ohio weekend ahead for the ALMS and Indycars. I just finished watching the DVD I recorded of last weekend's ALMS race at Lime Rock and I would expect this weekend to go about the same. The P2 cars should be quicker than the P1 cars at Mid Ohio since it is such a twisty track with relatively few places to pass. It's too bad there aren't more P1 cars available, but they sure are beautiful regardless of the car count. Dealing with traffic from the GT cars always makes these races interesting. And I would expect to see Marco run both races to get more road racing seat time, as the IRL now has more road races left on the schedule than ovals. That is going to make the Kentucky and Chicago races even more interesting and even though it looks like Dixon is poised to take the title, there are still lots of laps to run and anything can happen. Watch for Rahal, Wilson, Servia and the other transition teams to be even more competitive this weekend than at the Glen. It should be fun.

In the meantime, click on the following photo of TK racing with young Rahal to go to my picasa album page for more from both Nashville races this past weekend. See you Saturday, or maybe before. If you're out there reading this, then please leave a comment or two.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dixon Takes Nashville IRL Win - Mid Ohio Next

After another wet weekend, I'm back in Indy following a 687 mile trek to the concrete oval at Nashville Superspeedway. Just call me "Rain Man." Salem, Indy, Mid Ohio. Now Nashville. Everywhere I go the rains seem to follow. This time, the event was effected dramatically when the lightning brought an early finish as the skies opened up to drench us all. This shot is from Dixon's mid-race pit stop when it looked even then like rain might shorten the event.

Scott Dixon's Target team gave him the call too late for a final pit stop, but the blue liveried machine inherited the win after 171 laps when the rains came again, this time in earnest, and ended the day's action. With rumors flying in the local media and at the track that this may be the last IRL visit to Nashville, Scottie D made it a memorable one to take his third straight win at the Tennessee racetrack. While the racing is not typically as heated here as at some of the other larger asphalt ovals, the close calls are numerous every year. Marco got caught out early and spun into Ryan Briscoe's path taking them both out. Everyone trying to pass lapped cars had to take chances they wouldn't ordinarily take to keep pace. But that's normal here. And I guess it's fitting that Dixon has won all three times I've been to Nashville, the last two effected by rain. Tony Kanaan and Danica were the ones most effected by Dixon staying on track, as they pitted around lap 148 for the last time, Dixon did not, then rain came. Wheldon and Helio inherited second and third and seemed quite happy to pick up some additional hardware when the victory "podium" ceremonies were completed in the media room once the race was finally called.

Rains came earlier in the afternoon too - just as the Indy Lights drivers were being called to their cars for their 100 mile race, but the shower was brief and sun and wind got them on track a little after 5 p.m. local time. Ana Beatriz made history becoming the first woman to win an Indy Lights race, which is doubly cool since she's also a Brazilian and everyone knows how quick the Brazilian men seem to be wherever (and whatever) they race. She started outside Row 1 and dropped back early on the newly green racetrack and then drove her way from fourth to first as her main competitors, teammate and pole sitter James Davison, Jeff Simmons and others all ran into problems (or other cars as was the case with Davison). Bobby Wilson and Arie Luyendyk Jr. Followed her home without really mounting much of a challenge as far as I could see.

It was a great weekend all the way around as the drive back today was clear and traffic was moving well. Having a travel companion made it really enjoyable and it was nice to share the passion for this crazy racing game with someone who hasn't experienced it much before. And a special thanks to Don Hamilton and American Motor Journal for helping to make that happen. Next weekend I hit the road again to go back to Mid Ohio for the ALMS and Indycar race weekend, so I guess I better be prepared for rain again. Or maybe I should say the teams should be ready for rain since I'm coming, since rain seems to follow me to every track I'm at this year. Like they even care, eh? I'll take my firesuit next weekend to be sure I can shoot some driver exchanges and pit stops in the ALMS race Saturday too. Last year I got kicked out of the pits but didn't know they required them, since the IRL typically doesn't anymore. Nothing like a wet firesuit and driving boots! Wooo racing!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

IRL Heads to Nashville: Hunter Reay Bags First Win

With Scott Dixon's inexplicable mistake and spin under yellow that also took out Ryan Briscoe at Watkins Glen this past Sunday, the "other " Ryan in the IndyCar Series stormed past Darren Manning on the ensuing restart to win his first IRL race. No stranger to victory lane from his stint in Champ Cars, Hunter Reay got the Rahal Letterman team back into Victory Lane for the first time in almost four years. Now the series heads to Nashville, the only concrete track on the circuit, where the groove is narrow and starting position is critical. And I get to hit the road again to see it all. It seems like forever since I've seen Indycars in person and May is a distant memory. The season is on the downhill side of the schedule now and the competition should really start heating up from here on out.

So far this season, the IRL has produced four first-time winners: Graham Rahal, Danica, Briscoe and now Hunter Reay. Will Mutoh or one of the transition drivers like Servia or Power be next? I can't wait to see what happens, and each race now takes on even more meaning for the season championship. Let us not forget that Dixon lost the series title last year on the last corner or the last lap of the last race of the season, so DNF's or poor finishes can be a source of continuing off-season lament for the guys leading the standings.

This will be my third trip to Nashville and it is a great track to shoot. The cars bottom out and send up showers of sparks in Turn 1 on full fuel loads. This year I have a travel and shooting partner as well so that will make it even more fun. I love to drive and don't mind long road trips by myself, but sharing what was witnessed at the track with someone always makes an event more memorable.

And this season has been nothing if not memorable, especially in hindsight now that we're halfway through the schedule. Richmond was a crashfest and Milwaukee was an airshow. The Glen saw lots of contact, much of it under yellow, and I think it is indicative of a higher level of competitiveness from the front of the grid to the back. The transition teams are also coming into a part of the schedule where driving skill should equalize the advantage the more experienced IRL teams have with equipment. Next week is Mid Ohio, and I'll go back there for that weekend. Other road and street courses follow with Edmonton at the end of July. I will be at Kentucky in August and Chicagoland for the points finale in September, and much can happen between now and then.

My hope for this weekend is for dry weather. I seem to be a rain magnet and last year at Nashville, I left my sunroof open as I didn't expect rain and the inside of my car got drenched. I didn't have a hotel room either so the whole weekend was a scramble to stick it out for the delayed race the next day which turned out to be beautiful. The rains can come back next weekend at Mid Ohio which features the ALMS cars on Saturday and Indycars on Sunday. Then the weekend after that comes the Brickyard back here in Indy. An excellent string of weekends for this fanatic photog. See you at the race track!