Monday, July 27, 2009

Jimmy Johnson Takes Second Straight Brickyard Win

I think it was Yogi Berra who once said "It's deja vu all over again." That was the way I felt at the Brickyard yesterday as Jimmy Johnson became the first NASCAR driver to win at Indy two years in a row. It was also a lot like the Indy 500 in 2000, except Juan Pablo Montoya didn't get to kiss the bricks this time. Back then just as yesterday, JPM thoroughly kicked everyone's butt and was the class of the field by a longshot until a speeding penalty on pit road cost him a certain victory. So instead of having Juan draped in the Columbian flag in Victory Lane as the first driver to win the 500 and the 400 at Indy, JJ got his third trophy with the mounted gold brick and second in a row.

The conspiracy theorists were all over the penalty call when it occurred as up to that point the race was a snoozer as this year the tires weren't the problem. The racing, or lack thereof, was the problem. From my vantage point in Turn 1, no one seemed able to pass unless they were right up under another guy's bumper and loosened them up so they could drive under them going into 2, or someone got bogged down by the field fillers who were clearly content to just run laps and stay off the fence. After Montoya got the pass through penalty and dropped to 12th, it was just a question of who would get the lead on the next restart since clean air was everything yesterday and whoever was in front was pretty much untouchable. I found it incredibly tough to get two cars in the frame most of the day unless it was the first couple of laps after a restart or the leaders were passing a backmarker. Not what I call real exciting racing photography, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Despite what the shills on Victory Lane say on SpeedTV, not every NASCAR race is a great one. This one certainly wasn't. And for all the NASCAR drivers they brought to town before the race "guaranteeing" to put on a show, it didn't pan out, although no one wadded up any equipment this year.

The fact that Montoya dominated was no real surprise to me. In 2000, I was shooting in Turn 3 at the 500 and Juan took no prisoners that day, passing other cars in places where no one else dared to put a wheel. He was just a 500 rookie then and didn't know "they don't drive that way at Indy", but he showed everyone the fast way at the Indy 500 then just as he did yesterday at the Brickyard. It's really a shame that the day ended as it did, but he about put everyone to sleep at the 400 this year, his dominance was so complete. The biggest surprise to me was the huge number of empty seats. I'm sure it was obvious on TV but it was blatant in person. The big corporate ticket blocks may be a thing of the past, at least at Indy, as huge areas were wide open. It was a very disappointing day, but at least I didn't leave the track angry like I did last year.

I'm off to Kentucky next for the Indy Racing League race this weekend. Let's hope the rules tweaks the IRL has discussed make for a better show.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Indiana Sprint Week Ends: Brickyard 400 Next

Levi Jones took the title in the 2009 edition of Indiana Sprint Week driving for Tony Stewart racing in a week long grind all over the Hoosier state that saw great racing, huge car counts and lots of excitement for USAC sprint car fans. After seeing the small but competitive field at Winchester the first week of July, I was thoroughly impressed with the turnout at Kokomo Speedway last Sunday night, and the packed house surely got their money's worth. It has been awhile since I've been to a dirt race and I quickly remembered why I love it so much. I wish I had time to go do more of these events, as even though the feature races are short 30-lappers most of the time, 24 of these howling vehicles sliding sideways inches apart is a sight for sore eyes. And from the infield when the dust is flying, by the end of the night, the eyes are definitely sore!

I had never been to Kokomo Speedway before and it was quite a treat. A short oval with relatively low banking, it was in great shape all night with a nice cushion built up and multiple grooves available. For the photographers like me, you are in no man's land in the infield, with just a couple of concrete barriers to stand behind at each end of the track. There were too many of us to squeeze in there, so we ended up stringing out into the next corner and if you thought for a moment about how unprotected we were, it would make a sane person cringe. But the next thought is always, "their momentum will carry them past me" and you keep shooting.

I saw it as another opportunity to return to my racing roots, as I was introduced to racing by my grandfather at the dirt track at the County Fairgrounds in Warsaw, Indiana when I was three or four years old. I loved the way the fans at Kokomo edge up to the fencing in the corners, as they just know they are going to get pelted with dirt and mud as the cars broadslide through the turns. Maybe one of these days I'll get myself a big Norman flash unit and shoot like the regular sprint guys do. For now, my Canon gear is enough of a challenge to shoot high speed flash at night in dimly lit bullrings like Kokomo. Thank goodness I have the chance to keep learning, and for that I continue to thank American Motor Journal.

Next up is the Brickyard 400 this weekend, and of course I'm going to be pulling for Tony Stewart once again. He, along with Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Little E and others, have been paraded through Indy the last few weeks talking about what a great job Goodyear has done testing tires for the race this year. It sounded like ticket hawking if you ask me, so we'll see whether it's on the level or not this weekend. I'll be back with more from there Saturday and Sunday. See y'all at the racetrack.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tony George Ousted at Indianapolis; USAC Sprinters Take On Winchester

This is my 150th post on my blog and what better way to celebrate than to talk about what an interesting week in racing it has been around here. I suppose no one was shocked with the changes announced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently as there had been rumors for awhile. As for me, I managed to squeeze in a trip to Winchester for the Rich Vogler Classic USAC sprint car race which had been postponed by rain from April. The family interests on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board have relegated Tony George to a simple board member and made a number of other changes in its leadership structure. Apparently, he had the opportunity to stay on as head of the IRL but declined, opting to let the new leadership take this over, although he continues as a team owner for Vision Racing. Even that has strings since the family checkbook has been restricted to keep Vision as a one car team. Who knows what else is in store for the IRL now? With the road course race at the Glen this weekend, I'm sure this will be the subject of much discussion. I sure hope it is a more competitive event than the Richmond oval race last weekend. I was shocked to hear Dario admit afterwards that it was a lousy race and I am anxious to see what the opening of the rules will mean for the next oval race at Kentucky Speedway August 1st. That will also be my next IRL race so I am looking forward to that.

All of the focus seems to be on adding more downforce so there can be more side by side racing. I have to wonder whether the tires are too soft and whether a harder compound wouldn't help just as much as side pod extensions. Loosening the cars up by taking downforce away makes more sense to me, since the guy in the lead or a car in clean air now has a huge advantage, since the cars are so stuck to the track and you can't turn under anyone. The push to pass technology might help if Honda will bless it, but as it is now, there is no high line on most ovals since the marbles are so bad from tire debris. That's why giving them a harder tire compound makes more sense to me, but I'm not an engineer so it wouldn't be the first time that what I think is good common sense is all wrong from an engineering standpoint. It does seem a little odd that not much has been heard out of Firestone on this, so I hope Barnhart and the IRL tech people can land on something that brings back the close racing. More oval track processions is the last thing the IRL needs right now, and if Milwaukee is going off the schedule next year as has been reported, then there goes another opportunity to get it right with the cars and the fans. Indycars on short tracks have been racing fixtures since the days of Langhorne, and while I look forward to shooting the road course race at Mid Ohio in August, it's tough to see ovals dropping away when the IRL was formed as an all-oval series. Of course much has changed since the IRL was conceived and anyone involved now would have to say "mistakes were made" that have hurt the product and caused fans to lose interest and run to NASCAR. How the IRL moves forward under new leadership at the top is going to be critical for the survival of the series. If it were only about survival, then that might be OK for some, but personally, I want to see the series thrive and not just survive.

I couldn't get to Winchester in April when the USAC show was originally scheduled, so I was kind of glad it got postponed so I could go Thursday July 2nd. It's only about 90 minutes from home and it is another great little racetrack similar to Salem. The bad news with the postponement was the short field that towed in, especially since they had to move on to Toledo the next day for a doubleheader with the USAC midgets. There were only 15 sprinters that made it to Winchester, and the undercard of street stocks and front wheel drive compacts were similarly short handed. There was a good crowd though, and the promise of a post-race fireworks display no doubt had an influence on the number of families with kids who attended. Tracy Hines won the sprint feature after coming through the pack to pass Cole Whitt late in the race and there were several good battles throughout the field before Shane Hmiel's spin brought out a late yellow.

It was like old home week at the track for photographers as well, since there were quite a few guys there I hadn't seen since May at Indy. That's one of the best parts of being a racing photographer - these impromptu reunions happen at tracks all over the place and they are never planned. The most fun I had was talking to a young man from Spanaway, Washington with one of the best names in racing: Snake Livernash. He had never been to Winchester before and we struck up a conversation before the heat races started. Not that I know anything about driving one of those sprinters, but when he said he was starting behind Hines in his heat, I said "just follow him", knowing that he'd learn the fast way around from one of today's best. "Snake" had a nicely turned out car and seemed very nervous about running these fast high banks, but he stayed out of trouble and still had his equipment in one piece for the next day in Toledo. That's more than a lot of Winchester "rookies" can say, I am sure of that.

Until next time, here's a slide show from Winchester and don't forget to check out the American Motor Journal website from time to time. Order up a subscription while you're at it! See you at the race track!