Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lofton Takes Salem ARCA Win and Points Lead Over Kligerman

Young guns Justin Lofton and Parker Kligerman fought it out with amazing restraint and professionalism at Salem Speedway Saturday night with Lofton coming out the victor after some tense moments over the last few laps. Youth was well served on a beautiful southern Indiana night at Salem's infamous high banks as 16 year old Chris Buescher took the pole and Joey Coulter ran away with the middle third of the race before cutting a tire and finding the wall. Dakoda Armstrong came through for third. Lofton also took command of the ARCA season points lead with just two races left even though Kligerman fought back from a lap down late in the race and put on a furious challenge for the win. Lofton started the evening ahead on points by virtue of his second place starting position while Kligerman started fifth. The gap is now 25 points and the Salem finish sets up a great season ending duel in this highly competitive series.

On a night when Salem honored its legacy of more than 50 years of ARCA stock car racing by saluting short track legends before the 200 lap feature, local hero Frank Kimmel ended up fourth but was never really a factor for the win. Coulter was most impressive as he had lapped everyone except Lofton by the time the last 25 laps were approaching. Lofton used a little bump & run in turns one and two to get past him and within half a lap, Coulter cut a tire and hit the turn 3 fence to end his night. Kligerman had just been lapped by Coulter a few laps before this incident so he got the lucky dog pass back onto the lead lap but he was mired behind a dozen or so lapped cars on the final restart. Amazingly, he threaded his way through the pack to find Lofton and with about 10 laps to go, he made several attempts to pass for the lead but could never quite get fully alongside Lofton. Lofton noted after the race that Kligerman could have given him the bumper and moved him out of the way, but they raced clean and hard to the checkers.

All in all, it was a very entertaining night at a legendary short track. I don't know of anything better to do on a late summer Saturday night than go short track racing, and I think the healthy crowd at the event must have felt the same way.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

ARCA ReMax Series at Salem Next; IRL Fight to Homestead

While the Indycars are halfway around the globe in Japan, I am in Indy and we are heading south to Salem Speedway today for the ARCA ReMax Series race where young guns Justin Lofton and Parker Kligerman are poised to duel for season championship honors, tied for the points lead with only two more races to go after today. The fall night race at Salem is always a treat as the beating & banging among 30 or so competitors is always entertaining. And don't count out local favorite Frank Kimmel as he has won at Salem perhaps more than any other entrant and with no real shot at the season title from third, you can bet he will go for broke tonight to get a win. This has been an awesome season for Parker who, as a Penske development driver, you just know is getting great equipment and tech support. We're planning to get there for pole qualifying so I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

This is likely going to be my last race worked this season and I suppose it is appropriate that my 2009 racing season is bookended at Salem. It's a fun track to shoot with lots of side by side racing on the high banks, but it can also be quite nerve wracking working in the pits. This is especially true for the ARCA race as the curving pit lane with only one lane for outbound traffic is exceptionally tight and the pit boxes are small. There hardly seems to be any room for the teams to work, let alone for a tall guy like me to wedge myself in to get a few pictures. I really have to watch what's going on to stay out of the way and still do my job without effecting the teams.

Meanwhile in Japan, Ryan Briscoe threw away a golden opportunity to seize the series points battle, getting sideways and hitting pit wall while leading as a caution came out when all he had to do was get out cleanly and he probably had an easy win. Briscoe finished laps down after repairs and last year's history-making winner Danica was never really a factor which left the Target boys fighting it out amongst themselves for the victory. Dixon got out of the pits ahead of Dario on the last round of stops just as Hunter-Reay hit the fence to bring out the final yellow and cruised to the checkers from there. NHL teammates Rahal and Servia rounded out the top four, Mario Moraes overcame a fueling problem to take fifth and Danica wound up sixth.

So now the season points fight is tight as wet jeans going to Miami and the top three all have a realistic chance to win the title. Dixon, Dario and Briscoe now will fight over the 53 points still available for the series championship in a few weeks. I wish I could be there. Maybe next year.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Steve Snoddy: We Barely Knew Ye...

I found out tonight that Steve would have been 60 today. There was a celebration of his life at the Brickyard Crossing resort this evening and it was standing room only - photographers, IRL and IMS officials, television and radio personalities, and numerous others. I hope Steve's son's Stuart finds some solace in knowing that his racing family will miss Steve very much. I felt honored to be there and want to say thanks to those who let me know via email and Facebook.

I can't honestly say I was a friend of Steve's so perhaps I have no business even writing this, but there are moments from our interaction over the years that I feel compelled to share. Others who knew him better than I did can certainly add chapter and verse to these experiences, but having just seen him at the Chicagoland IRL race two weekends ago, to learn about his sudden passing was a shock and reminds me that the time to say what is felt is now as tomorrow could be too late.

My first year shooting the Indy 500 was 1984 and looking back on it now, I was completely out of my league. But I wanted to be involved and was eager to learn. I didn't know who Steve was but I knew he was "somebody" at IMS. Over the next few years, I would run into him occasionally at Firehouse Color Lab on East Washington picking up prints and he was always willing to offer tips and advice. "Fill the frame ", he'd say. "Be patient and let the cars come to you" was another tidbit I remembered. His images always seemed tack sharp while I was happy then to get a handful of good images out of a roll of 36. As it happens at the Speedway, I learned pretty quickly who he was in the network of racing photographers and my respect for his work only grew over the years.

I was blessed with the opportunity to work for the IMS staff from 1992 through 1996 and got to see Steve more often but I was still the low man on the totem pole and he was the accomplished photog. He was clearly a ringleader of the group and obviously loved what he was doing at IMS. Four or five years ago, I was playing hooky from work and just "happened" to be at IMS when an IROC test was going on, so I thought I would stop in the Indy 500 photo office in the Speedway Museum to see if Ron McQueeney was around. I wanted to talk with Ron about some of the mistakes I had made while working for him and try and set things right with him if I could. To my surprise, Ron was in his office and was willing to give me a few minutes of his time. Steve was there that day and every so often since then, when I saw Steve at a racetrack, he would ask me how I was doing. He always seemed genuinely concerned and I really appreciated that. He didn't need to do that and it was a reflection of the kind of guy I began to know.

Fast forward to April 2009 at Salem Speedway for the ARCA race. Some of us were standing around on pit lane before the driver autograph session and Steve walked up. It was the same weekend as the St. Petersburg IRL event so I was surprised to see him and asked him what he was doing at an ARCA race at Salem. He said "he needed to shoot a race" and that said it all. It was the first race of the 2009 season for me after a long winter and I knew exactly what he meant.

Then at the Texas IRL race in June, I was in the media center at one point trying to cool off and he asked me about doing something for him. I asked if he needed help and he said there was a photographer who might be interested in pictures of the NASCAR truck race and gave me her name and phone number. He said he was counting on me and whatever I could work out money-wise would be between me and her so I called her and found out what she needed. I felt like he was throwing me a bone, and even though the opportunity didn't bear any immediate fruit, I was grateful that he felt I could help someone else out -- there were plenty of other photographers there that weekend he could have gone to rather than me.

Just two weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway where Steve served as the track photographer as well as shooting for the IRL, we were standing in the lunch line Saturday afternoon chatting and I introduced him to someone that was fairly new to racing photography and he was gracious and accommodating. This was hours after the morning photo meeting where I had talked with him about getting a special sticker for outside wall access. I had jokingly addressed him as "Mr. Snoddy" that morning and he was willing to help (as usual) and told me what to do next year to be sure I got that access.

Around this same time, I had contacted the photographer from Steve's Texas lead through Facebook and mentioned in my friend request that I owed Steve a thanks for the chance to help her out. A few days later, I got the news that Steve had passed away unexpectedly and was completely taken aback. Tonight's celebration at the Brickyard Crossing was very touching and I know there were many more who would have attended but could not due to distance. There was a lot of love in that room tonight. So if I didn't say this before, I regret that: tonight I say, "Thanks Steve".

Godspeed, Mr. Snoddy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Indycar Title Chase Winding Down - Silly Season In Full Swing

Since my last post to American Motor Journal about the fantastic Chicagoland IRL finish, I've had time to reflect on what has been an awesome season title chase. It's now down to Briscoe, Dixon and Dario with two races to go, and there is bound to be fireworks somewhere along the line before the season winds up at Miami Homestead. The IRL oval races have taken a turn for the better since Kentucky as photo finishes there and at Chicagoland will attest. Motegi is a different kind of oval however, and fuel consumption strategy places a bigger role than aero tweaks, with its odd shape and lack of banking. I'm sure the folks at Honda and Japanese fans are looking forward to it.

Danica returns to Motegi where she got her lone Indycar win last year, and she is reported to be seriously considering running NASCAR Nationwide races next year in addition to the full IRL season. That sounds like a good move for her, and if Scott Speed can go from F1 to ARCA, getting seat time in the heavy taxicabs before committing to a full series switch must be a good thing for Danica. Even my man Tony Stewart has reportedly been consulted by Danica, and he is being quoted as saying she is serious about making the move.

Speaking of Honda folks, will Hideki be back in the AGR stable next year or will the Formula Dream yen go elsewhere? There sure were a lot of Formula Dream people at Chicagoland, and with reports that Dixon had considered moving to Gil de Ferran's new team in 2010 before re-signing with Ganassi, can the sponsor move from AGR to de Ferran be far behind? Will Takume Sato end up behind the wheel at de Ferran? I doubt that crashing out at Chicagoland helped Hideki's cause much, even though he had some very encouraging runs lately.

And how will the changes at AGR play out, now that Michael Andretti is going to be sole owner of the team, and his partners are going to focus on Andretti Green Promotions? If the Formula Dream money goes elsewhere, re-signing Danica has to be of paramount importance for Andretti. The team is probably going to have to make some other changes as well, as overall they have not done well in 2009. I would expect TK to go for broke in the last two races to try to get one in the win column, even though Danica is leading the charge in the season points for the team.

The guy I think could surprise everyone these last two races is at KV Racing however: Mario Moraes was truly spectacular at Chicagoland and it looks like he's got this oval track thing figured out. He was strong at Indy before he and Marco tangled on the first lap so he could do well at Motegi and steal one yet.

Everyone else is pretty much running for bragging rights, or a contract for 2010. What's going to happen to Vitor Meira? Will Wheldon jump back to AGR from Panther? And what about Vision Racing? The Hulman purse strings have been cinched up tight so Tony George is going to have to drum up some sponsors it looks like, which could be bad news for Ed Carpenter and the team, especially since Eddie has looked so good in the last two oval races and had his best ever road course finish at Sonoma.

With MotoGP done in Indy for another year, and the Grand Am series running a very popular and successful open test at IMS this past week, much remains to be revealed in the racing capital of the world over the next few weeks. I'd like to see Dario take the IRL title, and I hope the teams pit blunder at Chicagoland doesn't prove fatal to his title chances. I'd also like to see IMS renew the MotoGP deal and get some more general admission tickets out there for race day. The fans of the knee-draggers don't want to sit in the grandstands - they want to go where the bikes corner and pass, so give them what they want Mr. Belskus! And let's hope the Speedway management can find a way to run an endurance race in the fall with the Grand Am series, maybe as their season finale, and run it into the night on a Saturday. Finally, when the musical chairs end in the IRL after this season, let's hope they can get back to 26 or 28 cars at every race next year and continue to show the way with the fastest, closest racing on the planet.