Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman: A Racer's Racer - May He Rest In Peace

The racing and entertainment worlds have lost a giant of a man: Paul Newman. We will miss him at Indy and on the big screen. God rest his soul and bless his family in their loss.

My connection with PLN is minimal - I'm just a Hoosier and a lowly photog. But I have had the chance to be near this legend in the pit lane at Indy on many occasions, to shoot him racing in the Trans Am series at Detroit and elsewhere back in the 80's, and my greatest memory is not from the racetrack at all, but from the movie theater.

I was about to turn 12 when the movie "Winning" came out just before Memorial Day weekend in 1969. I remember my dad asking if I wanted to go see it, and then getting a discount ticket for the last time as a person less than 12 years of age. Watching the movie itself I was completely spellbound, and it remains one of the great racing movies of all time, along with "LeMans" (Steve McQueen) and "Grant Prix" (Jim Garner). It will always rank above the others IMO since it was about the Indianapolis 500.Frank Capua. Lou Erding. In-car camera views for the first time. Swatches of several Indy 500's montaged into the film. The first lap wreck in 1966. The Speedway motel where the infamous affair occurred that added to the personal drama for Newman's character that mythical month of May. And so much more than just the story of a racer.

For me that pretty well sums up his life. Lived on a grand scale, but always humble. You were lucky if you got a shot of him without his sunglasses on and I never saw him sign an autograph, but he was never rude or uppity when someone asked - he would just say, "Sorry, I don't sign autographs." I don't think he believed in his own celebrity and his charitable work is second to none, so the kids who benefited from his salsa's and salad dressings don't know how lucky they have had it to be the beneficiaries of this great man. I have some of his back bean and corn salsa in the fridge right now as a matter of fact...

PLN. Indy wasn't the same without you after the IRL-CART split and it won't be the same now without you in the future. I'm so glad you had the chance to grace us with your presence again this year for one last lap at the Speedway. If only your drivers had won Indy during your lifetime. So close but yet so far - Mario and Nigel among the best ever. Just like you. I miss you already.

The pic above is from Indy in 1986 at the pole draw as is the one which follows where he is being greeted by Roger Penske (in red shirt). And I had to include one from Detroit in 1984 in the Bob Sharp Racing Nissan. God bless and thanks for the memories.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Kimmel Wins at Salem ARCA 200

My 2009 racing "season" ended where it started exactly 5 months earlier: Salem Speedway in southern Indiana. Only this time, instead of cold and rainy conditions, it was hot and steamy. And the ARCA master, Frank Kimmel, drove like a bat out of hell to win for the 9th time at Salem. The car count was lower than for the spring race but the crowd was much larger and we were treated to a typical ARCA short track show:  close racin' among the top 10, some wreckin', and lots of paint being traded. I still can't figure out how Dexter Bean finished 3rd after causing the big red flag wreck of the night. Pit sequencing was a complete mystery as the teams only needed one fuel stop to go the distance, so fast guys like Scott Speed and Justin Allgaier ended up back in traffic as often as not. It bit Speed the most as he got dinged in Bean's smokescreen-induced pile-up on the backstretch but still managed a top 10 finish. Looks like he will be series champ as well as rookie of the year for ARCA this year.

So now I am left with the task of sorting through the several thousand images I shot this year for American Motor Journal to come up with 20 or so "best of" images for their year-end special edition that will come out in a couple of months. I'll do a couple of recaps here of my season on the road, display some more pix from all the tracks and series I shot this year, plus add a few pix of Mr. Photographer" at the track too just for giggles. You'll love the hats!

I thought Talladega was a possibility again this fall but I just can't swing it with work and other demands on my time being what they are, not the mention a long solo drive and the cost of gas. Even my Integra needs a rest every now and then.

Rossi Wins Red Bull Indy MotoGP; Hayden Second

Valentino Rossi sliced through the remnants of Hurricane Ike in Indianapolis Sunday to win the first motorcycle race at the Speedway since the track opened in 1909. While I was only able to get to the track for a couple of hours on Friday, I was thoroughly impressed with the bike control exhibited by the GP and 125cc riders. It was a typical Indiana weather weekend too - intermittent to pouring rain Friday, 90 degrees and steamy on Saturday, then hurricane winds and driving rain for the main event Sunday. If you don't like the weather around here, then wait 5 minutes and it will change, or so they say...

There was an excellent crowd on Friday and from all reports I've seen, IMS officials are happy with the first running of this event. There's talk of changes to Turn 5 to give more runoff room for next year, and with the race scheduled for the last weekend in August, maybe the riders will get the "dog days of summer" heat & humidity all weekend instead of just Saturday. It still looks like the esses leading onto the south short chute are too slow, but what do I know? I'm a car guy.

And 2009 will be 100 years since the track opened with the two-wheelers, so it should be an even bigger event. I had to go shoot the ARCA stock cars at Salem the next night so I had all the racing (and wet weather) I could stand for one weekend after Friday. I was thinking if I stayed away, then maybe the rain wouldn't follow me but it didn't matter to Ike. Or the roughly 100,000 fans who showed up at IMS Sunday. There's no place like Indy. Ya'll come back now, ya hear?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Helio Last to First at Chicagoland; Dixon Takes Season Spoils

Not quite 48 hours after returning home to Indy from Chicagoland Speedway, I'm still amazed by what I saw Sunday as the Indy Racing League put on its best show of the season. With a unified series putting 28 cars on this fast track, Helio Castroneves ran the race of his life to win by a nose from last place after his qualifying run was disallowed. Scott Dixon and the Target team were up to the challenge however, taking the lead on the final fuel-only pit stop only to lose out for the race win on Helio's last lap high side pass at the finish line in the second closest finish in Indycar history. Chicagoland has a reputation for highly competitive races and close finishes and Sunday's race was one for the ages.

Frequent three wide racing, lap after lap, not just among the leaders, but back in the pack as well. Too much side by side racing to shoot it all, even with a 4 gig card in my 40D. Close calls on the track and in pit lane. Packs of cars screaming by in unison, one long Honda whine until the next pack came through. I thought last year's finish was spectacular when Dixon ran out of fuel on the last lap, but this year's event topped it by a bunch. Helio's charge was a thing of beauty. He was 12th by lap 12, blowing by people high or low. He was clearly on a mission and did everything he needed to do to give himself a chance to win the race and the season title. But for the blocking call at Detroit last weekend, he would have a three race winning streak, and his reaction in victory lane after being told he had in fact won the race was pure Helio. I've always enjoyed watching his pleasure in racing and pure joy in winning, and he never seems to get down no matter what is going on. True to form, the top teams fought it out right to the checkers so it was a perfect ending to a very interesting season. Now they can all go to Surfer's and let it hang out for bragging rights on the street course with nothing on the line but a win.

One of my best moments for the weekend came Sunday morning after the photo meeting when I went outside the media center to smoke. I saw Jack Arute walking up and I mentioned he had a great interview with Helio after the Detroit race - the "Save me Jackie" comment in particular. He responded that the joke was going around with the TV crew that they were going to get t-shirts printed up with "I Have Nothing Smart To Say" on them to sell on the circuit. I'd buy one, for sure. And that's one of the greatest things I've experienced the last couple of years since getting back out into the racing world with my camera. Seeing people only at the race track, some whose names I know and most I know only by facial recognition, always ready to talk or share a story of what they saw. Hanging out in the media center getting hydrated again after the race and listening to the driver and owner interviews. Having someone to talk with about the day on the drive home - that is especially true for me as the sounds of race cars buzz through my brain for hours afterwards. As with so many other things in my life the last few years, I've been blessed with a second chance to pursue something I love and there are few things that get me jazzed up like chasing race cars around the midwest, seeing the results on my cameras immediately, and posting them on the computer later. It doesn't get much better than this, and if I die tomorrow, then I know I've been taken care of.

I miss Michigan being off the schedule, but Chicagoland is fast becoming my favorite track in the series outside of Indianapolis. I'll have more from this race to post once the American Motor Journal edition comes out, plus I get to go to Salem to see the ARCA race this Saturday, and MotoGP at Indy Sunday, so if anyone's out there reading this, I hope you come back or leave me a comment. Meanwhile, congratulations to Scott Dixon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing for another fantastic season in the world's best open wheel series. Anyone who says the races on these 1.5 mile tracks are boring needs to get off their butt and go to the race track and see the action up close and personal. You might have a different view than the one from couch racing.

But then, I have nothing smart to say...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Wilson Takes Belle Isle: Indycar Finale Hot for Chicagoland

Congratulations to Justin Wilson for taking the street course race at Belle Isle in Detroit. I felt bad for Helio that he didn't get a warning from IRL officials before being penalized for blocking, but anytime you make two moves, it's hard to justify keeping the position. Barnhart's explanation after the race was reasonable and Helio's ABC interview was priceless but you knew he was mad when he said "Save me Jackie. I don't have anything smart to say!" I'm sure the Penske brigade wasn't happy either since their ALMS team got a penalty for blocking in the Saturday race at the Isle. But seriously folks: is that a real race track? Give me a break. Nowhere to pass. Lots of empty area with no fans along the riverside. I've seen better events on I-465 here around Indy. At least there's some passing. Anyway, good job Newman Haas Lanigan. That's two now for the pre-eminent former Champ Car team and they have managed to upstage KV Racing in terms of results this season. Good for them!

The other big news this week was about drivers for 2009. Ever the bridesmaid, Vitor Meira is out at Panther and Wheldon is in. Dario Franchitti is back from his aborted NASCAR foray in the other Target seat. How odd it will be to see him teamed with Dixon next year when they fought it out to the last corner of the last lap at Chicagoland last year. It will be good to see him back in open wheel racing. Maybe Penske can bring back Hornish now and all will be right with the world. At least until Tony Stewart decides to let someone else drive his Stewart Racing Sprint Cup car and come back to Indycars where he belongs...

So now it all comes down to one race and two men with a shot at the championship: Helio and Dixon wheel to wheel. 30 points between them so if Dixon finishes 8th or better, Helio has to accept second. Meanwhile Scott Speed and the ARCA boys will run Saturday night in the prelim that should be quite exciting. This race was a crash fest on Saturday afternoon last year and I'm glad they moved it to the evening for Speed TV this year. Then Sunday the action starts early with Indy Lights warmup and race before the Indycar "hot laps" and the main event to wrap things up in the afternoon. I'm looking forward to it all, but the schedule is so jammed Sunday I doubt I will have time to post anything from the race track like I did from Kentucky. We'll see.
Maybe I'll see you there.