Monday, June 22, 2009

Pruett & Rojas Take Grand Am Show at Mid Ohio

Sports car racing at a beautiful natural terrain road course like Mid Ohio is quite a change from the oval track action I've been covering so far this year. The Rolex Series cars are simply gorgeous and the weekend schedule is almost non-stop action with a huge variety of cars on the track from early in the day until dinner time. For fans camping at the track, it must be great to have high octane racing fuel every morning with your eggs and bacon. Mid Ohio is a great family atmosphere and the racing is usually top notch, even though the course is notoriously difficult to pass on. But the great thing about multi-class sports car racing is the fast guys always figure out a way to carve through slower traffic and come out ahead. That's what Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas were able to do after starting on the front row, enduring penalty time in the pits and going a lap down, to storm back through the field and win a hotly contested race among the top three.

My first race at Mid Ohio was as a fan in 1982 for a CART road race and I remember sitting in the "esses" and watching Tom Sneva shortcut the hill through the grass. I went regularly through the mid-90's before the CART-IRL split as a photographer, racing back to Indy to turn in our film afterwards. For the last four summers, I have had the pleasure of covering the Rolex sports cars, the ALMS and IRL on their Mid Ohio weekends for American Motor Journal and these weekends are always marked on my calendar. Even my 74 year old mother likes to come down from Akron to watch, usually sitting on the hillside in the keyhole and enjoying the scenery. At least this year, the weather cooperated and it was hot and muggy, rather than soaking wet like last year.

The weekend schedule still mystifies me somewhat, as the feature race with the Daytona Prototypes and GT cars is run late Saturday afternoon, obviously for the TV slot on Speed. The bad thing about that is the only races left to run on Sunday are for the under card Koni and VW series and most of the weekend crowd has already gone home. It's too bad they can't have the Grand Am on Sunday as I'm sure the weekend attendance would improve. Nonetheless, we stuck it out through the Koni ST race Sunday afternoon and had a ball shooting from angles all over the track. My assistant and I probably walked five miles on Saturday as it was her first road course (and first sports car) race and she also enjoyed the variety of photo ops Mid Ohio presents. As many times as I've been to Mid Ohio, I like it even more each time, with its park-like setting, the rolling hills and laid back atmosphere. Not to mention the fact that I did the Acura High Performance Driving School on the track three years ago this past week, so I see in my mind's eye every corner and hill as they race since I've been out there myself. The goosebumps rise even now as I type and I look forward to getting back on the track again.

I'm off the road for awhile now but will keep my eyes and ears open for other racing tidbits, or just plain old couch racing BS, and bring it to you here as the spirit moves me. If it's Monday, I must be back to reality after all, which just means I start thinking about what I'll do differently in August when I get back for the ALMS and IRL weekend. I just hope the ALMS car count improves!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

IRL Drivers Carping at Texas

I guess one measure of a series' competitiveness is the amount of bitching and moaning you hear from the drivers after a race. And there was plenty of that after last Saturday's 550k at Texas Motor Speedway. I wasn't surprised to hear Marco whining about Danica, but what is she supposed to do? Pull over and wave him by? His comments were just inane and showed his continued lack of maturity. Teammate or not, no one racing for a top 5 position is going to just open the door and say "After you, if you please. Thank you much." Like the t-shirts and bumper stickers say, "kwitcherbitchin". Stand on the throttle and don't complain if a pass can't be made!

The best comments I heard were Scott Dixon's when he talked about how equal everything is getting in the IRL and that they should open up the rules some and let them have at it. I think that will happen but probably not anytime soon. It would be hard to get a new rules package together for 2011 unless the world economy really springs back strong this year and next. 2012 is probably more reasonable and I think the IRL has said as much. Even though this Texas race didn't come down to a photo finish, there was still plenty of good racing from my vantage point.

Speaking of Danica: she was all in the news with talk about her contract expiring when this season is over. How long before someone mentions Penske as a possible seat for her next year? How about right now, right here? I think The Captain is the best option to keep Danica in the IRL for 2010 and if she made the move, Roger could probably afford to run three cars all season since you know Danica would bring a fat checkbook from her sponsors. And there's no one better at preparing drivers to win (and win Indianapolis) than Penske. It's a no-brainer if anyone is asking.

Speaking of Penske, with his purchase of Saturn out of the GM bankruptcy, talk has shifted to having the Saturn badge on Sprint Cup cars. I'd suggest he's more likely to get Saturn into Indycars, especially if the manufacturing operation shifts overseas as has been mentioned. I heard somewhere that Honda is already making engines for some Saturn models and if Penske's stake is intended to make worldwide distribution easier, then what better way than to team up with Honda (or Toyota or Fiat even) to start sticking whatever motor he can into the Saturn models? Then it's just a matter of someone adding a new nameplate to the Indycar engines and go racing. If he still owns a stake in Ilmore Engineering, then it could happen almost overnight. And don't forget that Cosworth is still out there in the weeds doing their thing. All it takes is money, right? And Roger knows how to go get it.

As the old adage goes, the fastest way to become a millionaire in auto racing is to start with 10. Not so with Roger though. He seems to have the midas touch in automotive and trucking circles.

With ethanol now the fuel of choice, how long before they open up the rules for any kind of fuel? Can you say Audi diesel?

I know: too much time in the sun and too much racing fuel exhaust have cooked the remaining brain cells that I have. Oh well. More soon. Mid Ohio Rolex Grand Am is up next for me. Until then, enjoy a little slide show from that little Texas track near Fort Worth. I can't wait to go back.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Helio Climbs Texas Fence - Takes 2nd Season Win

Helio Castroneves has done it again! His Penske crew got him out first on a late pit stop and he held off teammate Ryan Briscoe and the Ganassi team to take the Bombardier 500k at Texas Motor Speedway. His fence climbing routine is getting more polished every race now it seems and the Texas fans ate it up. My first visit here has been a great experience - from the hospitality at the Champions Club Marriott, to the trackside access for photography. I have to say though that I expected more side by side racing in the corners than I saw this weekend, especially when compared to past races at Texas which always seemed to end up in photo finishes. I heard someone suggest that these IRL cars are so finely tuned now that it is hard to gain an advantage. I am not a technician by any means, but I can see how that might be the case after several years with the same chassis technology. On top of that, with the sealed Honda engines being virtually identical, no one seems to have a horsepower advantage so it is all down to handling, and clearly the Penske and Ganassi teams have it figured out. Once in the lead, they are hard to catch and almost impossible to pass. At least that's what it looked like down here.

My pick for the win was Dario and he never really challenged for the top spot. Ryan Briscoe appeared to be cruising for most of the race with the lead when a caution came out for debris and they brought out the sweeper trucks. I heard from others that several drivers were complaining on their radios about how bad the marbles were late in the race, so the track probably did need to be swept. But it took Briscoe's advantage away and once Helio beat him out of the pits, that was all she wrote.

Thanks again to American Motor Journal for the chance to shoot down here. There was even a sticker on the photographer's risers in Victory Lane for us and I felt like a one man band with the opportunity to cover the race from all different angles. Shooting from the outside through small holes in the fencing was incredible as cars whipped by in packs just inches away. The lighting may look good for television and the fans at the track, but my cameras still told me it was bloody dark, so it was quite a challenge to get usable images from certain spots. That's a matter of opinion, I suppose, and I enjoy the fact that I am still learning the digital gear at every race I shoot. And even as long as I've been doing this kind of photography, I still get the adrenalin going before the start and have to take a deep breath and tell myself to calm down and go to work. When that feeling goes away, then perhaps it is time to start doing something else, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Y'all come back now, ya here! I know I will be back. Everything IS bigger in Texas apparently, and this race was not the best IRL race I have seen, but the venue is spectacular and they do their best at the track to give the fans their money's worth. Now it's back to Indy and then in two weeks I'll be at Mid Ohio for the Rolex Grand Am series event. See you there!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dario Takes Texas Pole - Leads Ganassi Onslaught

Before I say anything about the Camping World truck race, I have got to give the Target team kudos for the way they have seamlessly integrated Dario Franchitti into the team with Scottie D. And Dario sure seems like a happy camper every time I've seen him, either at Indy or here at Texas Motor Speedway. So far it has been a safe weekend at the track and tonight will be the acid test with 24 cars ready to roll off around 8:30 local time. This track boasts more than its share of the closest finishes in Indycar history, and tonight could be another one as Briscoe and Helio are close on the heels of the Target bunch. I was surprised that Helio didn't make a stronger run for pole since Briscoe was out very early and I saw the two of them talking quite a bit before Helio went out next-to-last in the qualifying order. But the day belonged to Dario and I look forward to a great show under the lights tonight.

My day yesterday was a very long one. Up at 5, to the airport in Indy, straight from DFW to the hotel then the racetrack by 12:30 Dallas time, then Indycar practice and qualifying and the truck race. I finished editing about 1 this morning local time and after walking several miles to scope the facility out and good shooting locations, this dog was tired when my head finally hit the pillow last night. Today has been a little more laid back and we don't need to go back to the track until around 4:30 or so this afternoon. I hope to catch some z's by the pool in a little bit and be ready to go tonight.

I met some really nice people in the infield between Turns 1 and 2 before the truck race last night. They had an old school bus and I was told the owner of the bus had been reserving that same spot against the infield fence ever since the speedway opened sveral years ago. I also got my first taste of shark meat as they had some grilled up from a catch a couple of the guys in the group had made awhile back off the Louisiana coast. They showed me pix of a mako shark they had caught and were nice enough to invite me up on the bus for the first 40 laps or so of the truck race. I traded them some 8x10's from Indy that I brought with me and enjoyed talking about racing and their experiences here as they were from the Grapevine, Texas area and were most hospitable. A special thanks to those folks for their time. It didn't turn out to be a very good place to shoot the race since the infield catch fencing got in the way as the trucks ran the low line through that end of the track. Experiences like that affirm for me the basic goodness in people and especially in race fans as it doesn't matter where I have traveled, the common bond is racing and enjoying the events with camaraderie, good food, and whatever choice of spirits you may happen to favor. The Dr. Pepper went down nicely with the shark meat as it was bloody hot yesterday for this hoosier, and today it is supposed to be Even hotter. No wonder they run these June races at night!

The hotel here is just awesome and we can see the race track from our room window. The track is really huge and very nicely laid out for a mile-and-a-half circuit. I had another nice experience in the media center yesterday as another photographer that I have known for quite awhile told me about someone who was interested in shots from the truck event, and I followed up with them before IRL qualifying to see what I could do to help. That was a nice surprise and it was good to know that he felt he could trust me with the opportunity. Thanks Steve!

Back with more later tonight and then tomorrow it's back to Indy. I'm going with Dario to win tonight as he looks awfully tough to beat right now with the work the Target team has done on ovals outside of the 500. We'll see and perhaps I'll get that great shot that everyone hopes to capture. That's why I keep coming back - not to mention the fact that I can't get enough of the smell of ethanol exhaust and tire smoke from pit stops. Later!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Texas IRL & Camping World Trucks Up Next

Sitting in the airport in Indy waiting to board my flight to Dallas for my first trip to Texas Motor Speedway and I am excited to have the chance to go for American Motor Journal. Danny Wheldon, who almost made me look like a genius at the Indy 500, was quickest in Thursday practice with Danica second, according to this morning's Indianapolis Star. Wheldon should have a great shot at pole or the win this weekend as Panther has a proven history of going fast and winning at Texas. It should be a great show and I should be able to get to the track today in time for the IRL afternoon practice session and evening qualifying. Then the truck race caps it off this evening. This will be my first racing trip flying out somewhere as most of the events I cover are within driving distance. My brother and his son are flying in from Arizona to pick me up and spend the next two days at the track and hanging out. It should be a blast since I don't get to see them all that often. They came to Indy last year for the 500 and several years ago, my son and I flew out to visit and went to the IRL race at Phoenix so racing is a good excuse to get together I guess. Right now I've got to sign off as it is almost time to board my flight and I can't get the picture I want to use to load through the airport's wifi system (but I got it in Saturday from the hotel in Dallas). I'm anxious to see what kind of press facilities they have at Texas and I've been told that it is a tough track to find clear places to shoot race action, so today we scope everything out and be ready for the racing tonight and tomorrow under the lights. I'm sure both the trucks and IRL will be spectacular.