Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dario Takes Long Beach - 3 Weeks to Indy

Congratulations to Dario Franchitti for winning at Long Beach this past weekend. He was my sleeper pick for the win and things certainly fell his way with the timing of full course cautions and his pit stops. But he was also quick and untouchable. Too bad my first choice, Will Power, had radio problems or he would probably have won and put Penske in a tough spot for Kansas this weekend. Give the guy another shot and a chance to roll into Indianapolis with some momentum! He seems to have done everything asked of him while keeping the seat warm for Helio so I would think it would be tough to keep him out of a car this weekend in the final tuneup for the 500. And welcome back Helio! I'll bet his arms were ready to fall off once the race was over, but his appearance on Wind Tunnel belied any fatigue he might have felt. Adrenalin goes a long way to help a comeback!

The entry list for the 500 came out today and there are a solid 40 entries with 28 drivers listed. Even the King Richard Petty has a car and John Andretti will give it a good run if the crew is up to it. And boy was I wrong about Andretti Green for Long Beach - the AGR contingent will surely be strong with 4 cars at Indy. Penske should have three cars, and with Dixon and Franchitti leading Target Ganassi, I would expect these teams will dominate Pole Day May 9th.

The big story for May will probably be Paul Tracy's return to IMS with KV as a "former winner" - at least in his mind. I don't blame him for being a tad bitter the way that whole appeal was handled yet Indy owes no one anything so he'll have to earn whatever he gets after 7 years away from the Brickyard. How many times over the next month will we see the disputed video from the finish that year? Probably a thousand or ten. I was shooting in Turn 3 that year and it was total chaos as I couldn't hear what was going on and PT came by in front of Helio even though the sign boards still showed Castroneves in P1.

And I am SO disappointed that Milka Duno wasn't on the Indy entry list for Newman Haas Lanigan! NOT!

But Scott Sharp is, teaming with Wheldon at Panther. And Davey Hamilton with Dreyer & Reinbold. Sentimental entries to be sure, but I think we're assured of having some bump day drama this year again and it will be good to see. The person who most wants to get in the show this year? Probably Foyt IV, after his fiery crash on bump day last year kept him off the grid. Gramps is giving him another shot since Vision only had room for Carpenter and Hunter-Reay. Roth Racing, Bryan Herta, Hemlegarn and Conquest Racing all have entries with drivers TBA, and Sarah Fisher has an extra car, so that gives us 33 starters with the possibility of others coming out for the second week of qualifying. I'm sure we'll see guys with helmet in hand trolling Gasoline Alley for a shot at qualifying, so it should be highly competitive.

Now if the weather will just cooperate. See you at the Speedway!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spiderman Climbs Fence and Races to Long Beach

America's favorite dancing racer and friendly neighborhood fence climber has scaled his biggest career obstacle yet and climbed back into the cockpit of his Penske Dallara this weekend for the IRL's Long Beach Grand Prix. It is great news for Helio Castroneves, the Penske team and the Indy Racing League. Julianna would be proud of her partner's fancy two-stepping through the IRS legal maze. The grandstanding prosecutor in Florida has been booted off the show for cause and should check his credentials before lining up another celebrity tax case that seems to have been pursued for political objectives. That's just speculation on my part, but how can a guy like Madoff be allowed to keep his assets and someone like Helio be led to court in shackles? It just never made sense and apparently the jury thought so too. I'm glad they were sensible - must have been some race fans (or dancers) on that panel.

While my picture is from Chicagoland last year, my guess is that Helio will look much the same today in Long Beach, where his qualifying crash yesterday will undoubtedly fuel his Brazilian fire to go to the front during the race. Congratulations to Team Penske and to the entire Castroneves family and crew, who have all been acquitted. Godspeed today Helio.

Unfortunately, I don't think he will win today: too much rust and too much emotion. I hope the red mist doesn't descend on Helio too badly during the race, but mostly I hope the boys (plus tail-ender Danica) show a little more restraint today than they did at St. Pete two weeks ago. I think the most motivated driver in the paddock today will win: Will Power! I'm normally not a Penske fan (Except for Rick Mears and Sam Hornish) but this tax deal has been a blessing (for Power) and a curse (for Helio) so I see Will rising to the challenge today and winning from pole position. It will be an eventful day I am sure, with Viso and Matos in the first two rows, but if Power can get through the first turn without being taken out, then he should have an advantage in clean air with an open track ahead of him.

And what in the world is going on at Andretti Green Racing? They look like they are in complete disarray and I don't think they get along too well. Nothing can compare to good team chemistry but when there are so many egos involved as at AGR, that looks like a tall order. Maybe they are just spread too thin. All that aside, my sleeper choice for a win today is Dario Franchitti. It should be fun and I'll bet the weather seaside is a whole lot better than it is in Indy today!

Next up: Kansas. Then Indy, and Pole Day is less than 3 weeks away. I can't wait.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Officially an Oldtimer

You can probably tell from my hairline in this picture that I'm an oldtimer. Well, now it's official. One of the things I have been working towards since I first started shooting the Indy 500 in 1984 was membership in the "Indy 500 Oldtimers" club. This past Friday, I got my membership card and approval letter in the mail so it has finally happened. I am so excited and consider myself blessed that I've been able to get accepted, especially considering some of the difficult times I've endured at the Speedway and away from the track over the last dozen years or so. I can't wait to start wearing my red hat this May and am grateful that I've been able to hang around long enough and participate in the greatest race in the world as more than just a spectator. You can tell from the following May 2008 picture how happy I am when I'm at IMS.

I've said it many times before: a bad day at the racetrack beats a lot of good days lots of other places. And I've had more than my share of bad days at the Brickyard. Thankfully, those have not been held against me and I've been able to learn the lessons I needed to overcome them. It only happened with the assistance of a lot of people since I first started.

At the risk of leaving out someone (and I apologize already if I do), I'd like to thank Keith Pritchard, Annie Miller Carr and Carl Pendleton for agreeing to sponsor my Oldtimers application and for the wealth of advice they've given me over the years. Thanks also to Don Hamilton at American Motor Journal for the chance to have freedom at the track to be more than just a turn shooter waiting for a spin. Thanks to Ron McQueeney, Steve Snoddy, Ron Green and many others at IMS for the opportunities and help they have provided. Thanks to Alex Person for giving me that tryout and first opportunity with UPI. Thanks to Jerry Clark, Gregg Griffo and numerous others at the Indianapolis Star. Thanks to AFP for enabling me to get back in the game in 1999. And most of all, thanks to the other photographers like my friends Jamie Gallagher, Glenn Smith and a host of others for sharing the passion that makes us endure the wild and unpredictable month of May that is the Indianapolis 500.

God bless you all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Young Guns Shine at Salem Speedway

People often say that southern Indiana is God's country. Well He surely smiled down on Salem Speedway this past Sunday as the severe weather that pounded other parts of the State never materialized. Patrick Sheltra tiptoed through a light sprinkle the last 10 laps to win the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers 200 in a highly competitive scrap on Salem's famous high banks which ARCA was able to run the full distance.

But the real story of the day was the young gun talent on display throughout the afternoon. Everyone knows that ARCA has become the breeding ground for new hotshoes and the place where cagey vets can still race competitively. On this day, youth was served as Justin Lofton took his second straight ARCA pole position and finished a strong second to Sheltra. Penske development driver Parker Kligerman passed Sheltra for the race lead at one point and wound up third in a car that looks suspiciously like one of Kurt Busch's old Cup cars (only with Sam Hornish's number on it).

And 16 year old Chris Buescher took fourth ahead of diehard Ken Schrader. In ARCA's 85th race at Salem, it will be remembered for the classy fast racecraft of these young guys who really stole the show. Local favorite and Salem king Frank Kimmel lost ground at the start with a pit stop before the green flag flew and ended up a lap down. in seventh.

To top it off, Lofton and Kligerman now lead the ARCA season points ahead of Sheltra and Kimmel. Sheltra was quick enough to lap everyone but his three youthful competitors so only the top 4 finished the 200 lap distance. Sheltra's crew was ecstatic at the finish and performed their own spiderman routine on the front stretch fencing after a couple of obligatory donuts by Sheltra kicked up a cloud of tire smoke. For a short track race that a week earlier only had two dozen entries, the field was surprisingly competitive and the young guys stayed out of trouble all day. Kligerman had a near miss with another's spin early in the race, but his car and those of Lofton and Buescher barely had a mark on them when the race was over. Lots of others had damaged sheet metal or tire donuts on the side, but these suys were most impressive. When Michael McDowell was having such a fantastic season a couple of years ago, I don't recall any other rookies running this well at Salem so that bodes well for the ARCA season.

Watch for them to hit the NASCAR Camping World or Nationwide series before this year is over. And then tell someone you heard about them here first. Look for more of my pictures from the event in American Motor Journal's next issue. I'm happy to get a race under my belt for 2009 and I'm surprised that the nervous young men I saw in pre-race introductions gave way to such happy racers at the end of the day.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

ARCA at Salem High Banks Today - Rahal P1 at St. Pete

While the forecast isn't real favorable today for Salem, at least it is predicted to be warmer than last spring. I couldn't believe they got the race in last year, so I'm optimistic that it will get done this time too. Somehow. Salem king Frank Kimmel won last fall and even though he starts 11th today, he should still be the man to beat. Two rookies are on the front row for Eddie Sharp Racing, Justin Lofton on pole and Craig Goess on the outside. NASCAR vet Ken Schrader starts sixth in the 29 car field, so it will be interesting to watch as Kimmel only qualified 11th and is surely to charge to the front from the beginning. Normally just a one-stop race, the timing of the leaders' pitting can make a big difference on this fast short track where 17 second race laps are not unusual.

Congratulations to Graham Rahal for taking pole at St. Pete! Surely the weather will be better down there but he showed last year that rain or shine, he is quick. Clearly he could defend his race title from 2008. The Top 6 in final qualifying was not a big surprise, except for Dixon not even making it into the second round! Dario looks stout in his return, with Justin Wilson pulling a mild upset for Dale Coyne to start up front with Rahal. The Penske boys both made it to the Top 6 along with Tony Kanann who will likely go for it from the drop of the green flag. Mike Conway was very impressive until he bounced off of two walls at the end of the second session. Thanks to VERSUS. I enjoyed the qualifying show and they did a good job of showing the personalities in the sport, which the IRL desperately needs since once the helmets go on, it's impossible for the average fan to know who's who. And interviewing someone right after they've crashed out isn't going to allow them to put their best foot forward either!

We're off to Salem in a couple of hours and I'll be back with more later once I download eveything!