Saturday, August 29, 2009

Brandon Wagner Takes Chicagoland Indy Lights Pole

Brandon Wagner came from nowhere in practice to take the Indy Lights pole todat at Chicagoland with an average of 189.954. Whereas everyone else went slower from the morning practice, he ran about the same as his top practice lap when he had been 15th of 16 cars on the track. Wade Cunningham will start on row 1 alongside Wagner. Anna Beatriz had mechanical problems and never took the green after a warmup lap in qualifying so she will start in the last road. Series leader JR Hildebrand had a sour sounding engine and will also start near the back.

Chicagoland Indy Lights On Track - Cunningham Quickest

Live from the media center at Chicagoland Speedway on a gray and windy day, the weather may be chilly but the Indy Lights teams have finished their hot laps and are now preparing to qualify. Wade Cunningham had fast time in this morning's practice session, followed by season points leader JR Hildebrand, who has a chance to clinch the Indy Lights championship today if he finishes 13th or better. The Lights cars are always entertaining on the ovals and today should be no different. Packs of 5 or more cars is not unusual and when I saw them doing that in practice this morning, I thought they must be crazy. Conditions today, however, are vastly different than yesterday, so all 16 teams were working on race setups the first half of the session and then focusing on changes for qualifying the second half.

My personal favorite Indy Lights driver is Ana Beatriz, who I saw win her first race at Nashville in 2008, and who had a wicked crash at Indy near me in May. I got this shot as practice wound down and the team was doing lots of work trying to tweak her shocks for qualifying. She ended up fourth quick in the practice session and should be a leading contender in the race today. I hope she can graduate to IRL next season!

Back with more later. Indy Lights qualifying is next followed by the Lights race and then IRL under the lights. Both should be entertaining. Ryan Briscoe is on pole for the IRL feature and I'm still not ready to make my pick yet...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chicagoland IRL Points Battle Looms; Power Out - Phillipe Lucky

Dario Franchitti had them all covered at Sonoma this past weekend and jumped past teammate Scott Dixon into second place in the season points standings behind Penske rival Ryan Briscoe. Penske's stellar stand-in Will Power survived the scariest crash of the season with broken vertebrate but the really lucky driver was Nelson Phillipe, who had a one-off ride on the road course for Conquest Racing. With only three races left, all on ovals, it's a shame that Power won't be able to take part as he has been a more than capable team player for Penske this season. And even though they don't typically come anywhere close to 200 mph on the road courses, Power's accident cresting a blind turn goes to show just how dangerous these IRL events can be; no one should ever take driver safety for granted as anything can happen. With the series heading to Chicagoland this weekend, that will be even more true since three-wide Indycar racing and close quarter battles up and down the field are almost assured if past history is any indication. Crashes are a part of the sport and you better believe that Ryan Briscoe knows a thing or two about the dangers on the fast Chicagoland oval. Let's hope for a safe and competitive weekend. At least there are no blind corners!

The other big news heading into the home stretch of the IRL season is that Danica won't be waving goodbye to the Indycar series as she is reported to be close to signing a deal with Andretti Green Racing, and next year Michal Andretti will be the sole owner, as his partners in AGR are going to focus their efforts on the Andretti Green Promotions company that promotes IRL events in Toronto and elsewhere. I was wrong a month or so ago when I guessed that Danica might jump to Penske but regardless, having her stay in the IRL is an essential element for the series to grow in popularity as far as I am concerned. Just judging from the number of people at the tracks (men, women, little girls - it doesn't matter) wearing Danica gear, it is obvious that when speaking of the IRL, they know about Danica. We really can't afford to lose her, and especially not to NASCAR. While AGR hasn't done much for her on the track this year, the team seems to be getting its act together, so maybe she can repeat in Japan or steal a win at Chicago or Homestead.

Scott Dixon, on the other hand, is almost too cool for his own good sometimes, but man does he know how to peddle it and save fuel on the ovals. Third in the standings doesn't mean he is out of contention by any means, and I'm hoping this weekend has a similar fantastic finish as they had at Chicagoland in 2007 when the race wasn't decided until the last turn of the last lap. And it was fuel that made the difference that time, with Dixon sputtering and Dario flashing by to take the win and the season title. After getting punted by Marco Andretti on the last lap at Sonoma this past weekend, I'm sure Scotty D will have something up his sleeve for everyone this weekend. Dixon apparently took a look at jumping to Gil de Ferran's new team for 2010 but that was probably just for bargaining leverage. Lord knows with the success he has had at Target Ganassi, that would be awfully hard to match with a new team. He's in the best seat in the house right now and he's still the man to beat for the season title. I know he won't go down without a fight.

And the fight could come from inside the Target team, as Dario has done a fantastic job this year after his NASCAR "vacation" and he clearly knows how to win races and season titles. He has looked really relaxed all season long and seems to be enjoying his return to open wheel. Certainly his results warrant the show of confidence that Ganassi provided by bringing him back to the IRL when the taxicab money went poof. His Chicagoland win of 2007 was the capper to an awesome season for Dario and the new long, curly locks contrast sharply with the high & tight look he had that year. No one should doubt Dario's willingness to take chances to win these last three races and he appears to be as fearless as ever, despite the aerial shows he put on at Michigan and Nashville in 2007 during his championship season. We'll have none of that this weekend, if you please. I've always liked Dario and I just wish they would leave Mrs. Franchitti out of the broadcasts as I really think she'd much rather just let Dario have the spotlight. Why else would she wear the same floppy hat every race?

Which finally brings me to the man everyone is chasing: Ryan Briscoe. He's been strong all season and he has certainly resurrected his career with his results at Penske Racing. Most IRL fans will remember the awesome wreck he was in at Chicagoland a few years back driving for (guess who?) Chip Ganassi, during the season of crashes for the team when he and Dixon wadded up a number of underpowered Toyota-engined Target cars trying to stay with the leaders. And after his tangle with Danica at the Indy 500 in 2008 followed some early season struggles, a win at Milwaukee last year sure righted his ship and Captain Penske has been unwavering in his support of Ryan. That's good news for the team but bad news for anyone not driving a red and white car this weekend, I'm afraid, as he snookered Ed Carpenter at Texas in June in the closest finish of the year and he will surely be part of any photo finish this weekend at Chicagoland.

This track has a history of many of the closest IRL finishes ever, so I am really looking forward to getting back there for my fourth IRL race in a row at the track. The Indy Lights are also on the agenda Saturday, following ARCA and the Camping World Truck series Friday night which I will probably miss due to other commitments. I expect to be posting from the media center at various times Saturday and I will save my prediction for the IRL race winner until I've had a few whiffs of ethanol exhaust. Stop by again soon, or come find me at the track if you make it out. I'll be accompanied by my able assistant this weekend so it should be a blast!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mid Ohio Madness - All Racing, All The Time

After a long and hectic weekend at Mid Ohio shooting a ridiculous number of images, walking several miles over hill and dale, and falling asleep each night with the hum of race engines in my ears, some might wonder if I really have been out in the sun too long with this post. Three straight days at this track is like a week's worth of racing most anywhere else, with so many sessions crammed back to back to back. I wouldn't want it any other way and the technical and creative challenges I faced last weekend made it all the more interesting. Throw in a little rain Saturday morning and high heat and humidity on Sunday, and you have a racing photog's best recipe for either disaster or something approaching the "zone" that many athletes have experienced. The top dressing for it all is luck - being in the right place at the right time and having a camera ready. I can't say I really found that zone this past weekend, but after a few thousand pix and as many cars flying by, everything did slow down and I was able to quickly dial in about any shot I wanted. By the time the IRL race was over Sunday, I was sitting on the photographers' bleacher in victory lane and thinking to myself that I had done a pretty good job. And I had 16 gig of images, sore feet and a back seat full of sweaty clothes in my car to show for it.

On the drive home, another thing struck me, having been to Mid Ohio several times the last few years to shoot both the ALMS and Rolex Grand Am events. While I love the big prototypes, the addition of the "Challenge" class cars to this ALMS race was disappointing to watch, as they were clearly just field fillers. Anyone can seemingly get a Porsche 911 and go racing. Sure it makes it interesting for the drivers because of the huge differential in top speeds, but should a P1 car have to spend half the race flashing his brights at the slower cars like de Ferran seemed to? How long before a P1 or P2 car rounds a blind corner at top speed and plows into a stalled GT car that is just there to build the car count? God forbid it should happen.

What I'm really wondering is what will be the catalyst for a sports car unification ala Indycar and Champ Car? Let the GT cars run their own races as support categories except in the endurance races - Daytona, Sebring, LeMans and Petit LeMans. Maybe add Indianapolis to the mix if they can figure out how to make a 6 hour or 1000k event work on the IMS road course. Get everyone together for those races, and let the prototypes hammer one another in the sprint races. Of course there are a number of problems with that approach, not the least of which is each series philosophy on equipment. Rolex is more customer car oriented with lower tech requirements and Hoosier spec tires. This leads to big lap time differences compared to ALMS so an equivalency formula of some kind would be needed; often simply adding weight is enough to do the trick.

For example, the Pontiac Riley of Gurney and Fogarty were on the Rolex Mid Ohio pole this past June at 1:18.059 and the last DP car qualified at 1:24.086 back in 19th. Conditions were dry but not as hot as this past weekend. Thirteen GT cars followed in a range from 1:26.171 to 1:32.680 for a total car count of 32 machines. The Rolex series has been known for its "gentleman" racers, sportsmen with cash to burn who help fund an entry so they can race with the big boys. It would be hard to argue that Alex Gurney, Scott Pruett and others like Max Angelelli or Romain Dumas couldn't hold their own regardless of what sports car series they were in. The Rolex race ran 2 hours 45 minutes and the winners completed 111 laps with a fastest race lap of 1:18.909 by the 6th place Ford Riley of Michael Shank Racing.

By contrast, six weeks after the Rolex event, ALMS fielded just 26 cars, with only 10 prototypes in P1 and P2 combined. Pole winner Gil de Ferran stopped the clocks at 1:09.443 while the slowest P2 car qualified at 1:15.898. The slowest production based car ran 1:29.470. De Ferran's fastest race lap was 1:11.105 and ALMS ran 118 laps in the same 2 hour 45 minute race window in much hotter conditions. So there would obviously be some work to do to for the manufacturer and technology based ALMS series to see true competition from the Rolex brigade.

Would the result yield better racing for sports car fans? I sure don't know, but the crowd at the Rolex event is paltry in comparison to the ALMS/IRL weekend. Maybe the fact that the Rolex race is run late Saturday afternoon to get on TV has something to do with it. Maybe the fans like the combo event where they can see IRL's high speed open wheel stars on the same day as the ALMS. I don't know what the answer is, but everyone seems to sing the blues amid a cry of "in this economy etc., etc., ...) so something is probably going to have to give. How long will Acura want to be the lone manufacturer at the top of the podium? So far it's working for the parent company Honda in the IRL, but I do not think they would shy away from competition. After all, they decided to enter sports car racing when the mighty Audi's ruled the roost, and even Audi succumbed to the doldrums of the worldwide car market this year and bailed out on full season racing at the top levels. Would more manufacturers bring sports car racing together so we could see 30 or so prototypes battle it out in their own feature races?

Who knows? I'm just asking, that's all. And everyone knows how to become a millionaire in racing - you start with ten. See you at the race track.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mid Ohio ALMS Win goes to de Ferran; Briscoe on IRL Pole

Gil de Ferran followed up his retirement announcement with a dominating win at Mid Ohio today in the P1 class with co-driver Simon Pagenaud. The 66 Acura machine jumped into the lead from the start and while the similar Patron sponsored Acura piloted by Scott Sharp and David Brabham gave chase all afternoon, they were no match for the de Ferran team. Acura completed a sweep of the top three spots on the track by taking the P2 class win as well, as Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz brought the Lowe's car home unscratched. I suppose this was fitting in the "Acura Sports Car Challenge."

It was a busy day at Mid Ohio with cars on the track shortly after 8 a.m. past 6:45 p.m. when I left. The Indy Lights series made their first appearance on the track early in the day and it rained during the last 20 minutes of the IRL practice session which follwed the Lights. That meant the ALMS cars had a wet track for their final warm-up session and the Lights had a drying track to contend with, so tire changes and dropping lap times marked the Lights qualifying. By the time the IRL qualifying began, the track was fully dry, and it was fun to watch the knockout qualifying as teams went from the "blacks" to the "reds" optional tires to set faster and faster times as the session went on. Ryan Briscoe took pole from the vastly improved Dale Coyne Racing team and its driver Justin Wilson who will start second. Briscoe's IRL pole time was about two mph quicker than the ALMS P1 pole it has been extremely interesting to see how each series attacks this undulating road course.

Sunday should be a lot of fun as there are still two races to cover with the Lights going off first in the morning and the Indycars following in the early afternoon. I've walked at least five miles today trying to hit all the angles I could think of, so tomorrow will likely involve more of the same. Passing will be difficult for the IRL cars, even with the push-to-pass feature in play, so it may come down to pit work and track position at the front. If Wilson can get the jump on Briscoe at the start, that could set the tone for the race.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Gil de Ferran Takes ALMS Pole at Mid Ohio

One day, open wheel and sports car veteran Gil de Ferran announces he will step out of the Acura cockpit in ALMS and the next, he goes out and puts the car on pole! A winner at every level, de Ferran showed the P1 competition the way and led an Acura sweep of the top two class positions as Luis Diaz swept the Lowe's Fernandez machine into the first P2 slot. While the ALMS car count in P1 and P2 still eaves much to be desired with the departure of Audi this season, these cars are beautiful and sound even better. And there's probably no better place to showcase skills for the road racing crowd than Mid Ohio. For a Friday practice and qualifying day, the sports car enthusiasts were out in droves. I'm sure the place will be jammed to the gills tomorrow for the featured ALMS race.

The Indycars didn't get on track until late in the afternoon and you really needed a program today to keep everything straight. Robert Doornbos bailed out of Newman Haas Lanigan this week and is a teammate to EJ Viso at HVM this weekend. Oriol Servia jumped right into "Bobby D's" former seat and spent the afternoon session getting comfortable in the 06 car, not having been in an Indycar since May at the Indy 500. And who was in the 5 car normally piloted by Mario Moraes but Paul Tracy? I thought the helmet style with the Monster energy drink logos looked odd! The IRL and Lights qualifying sessions are tomorrow for Sunday races so it should be an interesting day. It is supposed to be close to 90 degrees the rest of the weekend so that will surely test everyone's stamina.

I covered about two-thirds of the track today and tried to go where the light was best. One of the great things about shooting road racing, especially at a track like Mid Ohio, is the variety of cars and angles to photograph. Now I'm sitting in a Super 8 and watching the Rolex cars at Watkins Glen on Speed TV, so it doesn't get much better than this. If only the photo meeting weren't so darn early tomorrow!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Briscoe Edges Carpenter at Kentucky Speedway

Of all people to be racing wheel to wheel for an Indycar Series win, I'm sure Ryan Briscoe would not have picked Ed Carpenter. But that was one helluva run by Carpenter and the changes made by the IRL brass seemed to have worked as there was lots of side by side racing throughout the field. Briscoe survived a brush with the wall and a persistently aggressive charge by Carpenter to snag the win in a near photo-finish. The margin was said to be 0.0016 seconds, the closest IRL finish ever at Kentucky, and the average speed was over 200 mph. The racing was mostly clean and green all night and the number of laps led by Carpenter tonight were probably more than the rest of his IRL career combined. He had the low line on Briscoe late and held his own for at least 10 laps wheel to wheel in a really spectacular display of driving. Perhaps the Vision Racing team is coming into its own now that Tony George is able to focus his attentions on what the team needs.

Standing in Victory Lane waiting for the ceremonies and the hat dancing to begin, a few sprinkles were felt and everyone really got lucky tonight. Briscoe has now taken the IRL season points lead heading to Mid Ohio next weekend, a track he won on last year. Early int he race, it looked like the Target-Penske juggernaut was going to make the race another parade, but the push-to-pass technology and other aero changes combined to produce a very entertaining Indycar race.

The other news coming out of Kentucky this weeked was the 2010 IRL schedule, which features 17 races along with a couple notable additions and deletions. Gone are Richmond and Milwaukee. New are Brazil and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. It will be the first time in the IRL's history that there will be fewer oval races than road/street circuits and the league is entering into a crucial year. Unification came last year and the economy tanked this year, so next year could be critical to see how the IRL responds to new leadership and an expanded international presence. The usenet group folks still howl about how this looks a lot like CART or Champ Car, but it is the only major open wheel series running at a top level for American fans to see. Everyone knows I've been an IRL supporter from the beginning so I'm hopeful the current momentum can build. With the troubles that Sprint Cup is having, perhaps the timing is just right. We'll see.

Look for more soon on the American Motor Journal website.

Cunningham Takes Indy Lights at Kentucky Speedway

Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver Wade Cunningham took the checkers today after a spirited battle among the top 4 for the full race distance. A late spin caused the race to finish under yellow and Carlos Saavedra and Ana Beatriz followed Wade to the line in second & third. Problems with drainage yesterday caused the postponement of all of Friday's activities and then a rain shower around noon today caused the schedule to get jumbled even further. Both the Lights and IRL cars got on the track for later afternoon practices and the Lights race was pushed to 6 p.m. but they got it in. More rain is forecast for tonight so the featured IRL race could still be in jeopardy.

I'm in the media center writing this now so I hope to have a further update before I leave the track tonight. Someone just came in and said it is raining. I drove through rain near Madison on the Kentucky side of the river on my way here this morning so nothing would surprise the reigenmeister, although this year my luck has been pretty good so far. I hope Versus will stay with the race tonight, although my recorder is set for the slated time, so we'll see what happens.