Thursday, December 16, 2010

Racing Recap 2010: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

It's all over but the shouting for the 2010 racing season and there have been many memorable moments to savor through the winter months. Soon enough, the Rolex series will be running at Daytona around the clock and the 2011 season will be underway. In the meantime, here's my take on The Good, The Bad & The Ugly from 2010. My slideshow at the end of this post chronicles many of those moments captured through my cameras this season, including my sequence of Mike Conway's horrific crash on the final lap of the Indy 500.
The Good
As a photographer and diehard Indycar fan, some of the best moments came from the IZOD Indycar season. Will Power's comeback from serious injuries in 2009 to battle Dario Franchitti for the series championship was among the best stories of the season. While Power came up short in his challenge for the series title in the final race, this storyline provided a fantastic backdrop for lots of other good news in the series. Tony Kanaan's victory at Iowa chased away his demons at that short track and provided Andretti Autosport with one of its few highlights for the year. Ryan Hunter-Reay was rewarded will full season support by IZOD after a strong early season showing when it appeared his ride was in doubt due to funding; his job at Andretti is now secure for the next two seasons as a result. One of the big surprises of the season was the strenght of Alex Tagliani's new FAZZT team which showed surprising speed and consistency throughout the year. The series also announced that its Road to Indy ladder system would be bolstered by Mazda going forward and a $300,000 reward would be given to the USAC Driver's Champion; this funding puts Bryan Clauson in a Firestone Indy Lights ride for six 2011 oval races. Rising stars like Conor Daly have benefited from the ladder system already, and his Star Mazda series domination resulted in a GP3 test in Europe following the season along with television interviews during the Indycar finale on Versus. Graham Rahal appears to be set for a full 2011 season with financial support from National Tire & Battery and JR Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, is jumping into the Panther Racing seat occupied for the last two seasons by Dan Wheldon. Lights driver Pippa Mann got her first win at Kentucky and the talent level in Indycar and its support series continues to be on the rise. Indycar's best news came during silly season when it was announced that Dallara would build it's new Indycar facility in Speedway, Indiana and Chevrolet, Lotus and Honda would all provide engines under a new technical formula for the 2012 season.
Chip Ganassi's success in multiple series, including winning the Daytona 500, the Indy 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Indycar and Rolex Series championships was a remarkable feat. Dario got his second Indy 500 win, Jamie MacMurray won Daytona and the Brickyard, while the duo of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas cleaned up in the Rolex Series despite rules changes during the season which were intended to handicap them. Congratulations to all the Ganassi teams for their awesome 2010 seasons! In NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson had to come from behind in the Chase to secure an unbelievable fifth straight series title. The ARCA series had a stellar year with young guns taking over for the veterans and continuing to brand itself as a proving ground for up and coming stock car racers in need of taxicab experience. Dakoda Armstrong's last lap charge at Talladega was a sight to behold and he grabbed a second win at the Salem Speedway high banks to mark himself as a driver to watch. I am personally excited that ARCA has announced a return to Winchester Speedway next year after a four year absence, and that it will team up with the USAC Silver Crown and Midget Series at O'Reilly Raceway Park in July as part of NASCAR Speedweeks leading up to the 2011 Brickyard 400. I could go on and on with the 2010 good news from the racing world as there was far more good than bad from my perspective, but "The Bad" and "The Ugly" often generated more headlines this season.
The Bad
For Indycar drivers Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon, "The Bad" included the loss of their rides for 2011. For TK, it was a simple matter of economics while Danny left an acrimonious situation where he had to sue the team over contractual issues and finds himself on the outside looking in despite two consecutive second place finishes in the Indy 500. While Will Power's season was a bright spot for Penske Racing, Helio Castroneves had one of his worst seasons in years with several DNF's and the memorable black flag at Edmonton after which he went ballistic on Indycar officials and created the season's most embarrassing moment. NASCAR found itself on the downslope in attendance and television ratings again in 2010. Several factors have negatively impacted NASCAR including the cookie-cutter "Car of Tomorrow", the locked in teams being guaranteed starting spots which has made qualifying largely irrelevant, the lack of exciting racing at most tracks, but mostly I believe the Chase format is to blame, since winning races no longer seems to be the primary objective in the series. Attendance at this year's Brickyard 400 was the worst ever with thousands of empty seats available. Danica Patrick's foray into NASCAR was essentially a "made for TV" sideshow and her race results left much to be desired as she is still learning how to drive a loose racecar. For me, part of "The Bad" was that I was unable to travel to shoot as many races as I would have liked in 2010, but I am hopeful that 2011 will be my breakout year as a motorsports photographer.
The Ugly
Ugliness in racing can take many forms, most often from on track altercations involving serious injuries or worse for drivers or crew members. One of the ugliest incidents this season involved Mike Conway in Indycars and USAC driver Shane Hmiel, albeit with different results. Conway's Turn 3 accident was by far the worst I have ever photographed and when it first happened, everyone feared the worst. Thankfully he is on the mend from leg and back injuries and could be back in an Indycar next season. For Shane, the recovery from a USAC Silver Crown flip at Terre Haute is much more daunting and he may never drive again. Shane's seems especially ironic considering the personal demons he has battled and the fact that he had back to back USAC sprint car wins at Salem and Winchester that I photographed less than a month before his accident. Shane's Facebook page is "The road to Recovery" and I would encourage any race fan to support him and his family in any way they can. The Firestone Indy Lights accident I photographed at Kentucky Speedway was ugly as well but no one was seriously injured in that one.
Post Script
For racing drama and excitement, nothing beats a good wheel to wheel battle in an open wheel car in my opinion. As a racing blogger and photographer, I have been very fortunate to be up close and personal with teams and drivers over the years and am grateful for the opportunity that American Motor Journal has provided me to cover some of the most dramatic races in recent history. I never want to see anyone get hurt and working as a photography often gets me in position where I could be in harm's way personally. So far, I have been lucky. As racers often say, "I'd rather be lucky than good". I'll take either. See you at the racetrack next season.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Indy Motorsports Show - Final Day

The 2nd Annual International Motorsports Industry Show (IMIS) winds up a highly successful run in Indianapolis today with an estimated 18,000 racing industry people attending during the week. With three days of open exhibits and an additional two days dedicated to technology and safety seminars, IMIS is carving out a unique niche in the racing world as the primary trade show where racers go without the general public being invited. Tom Wiesenbach of the Indiana Motorsports Association (IMA) has indicated that roughly 580 racing industry companies are involved in the show which is expected to have an economic impact in excess of $16 million dollars on the local economy.

As with any other business, networking within the motorsports industry has become vital for manufacturers, drivers, racing series and race teams. Walking through the exhibit hall, I have seen recently crowned USAC National Driver's Champion Bryan Clauson, ARCA's Frank Kimmel and NASCAR Nationwide driver Justin Allgaier among others. The ARCA series had a very nice display and the Must See Extreme Sprint Car Racing series was also represented. Beyond the exhibits, almost all of the manufacturer booths had quality peripherals, either as handouts, decals, promotional items or contest drawings. One of the best elements of the show was the ability to have one's name badge scanned into the company's contact system for additional followup. Often at trade shows, there is a lot of foot traffic but little "qualified" traffic. My sense after spending the last two days here is that the majority of attendees at this show would be considered qualified traffic and generate quality leads for companies that they could turn into future business.

With the show designed to create business for motorsports related companies, whether that goal has been achieved remains to be seen. The fact that all the booths sold out this year and exhibitors are already signing up for 2011 would seem to support the show's purpose. The promoters and businesses involved must be happy with those indicators. The most surprising element of the show to me, and one which probably needs to be pursued further, is the involvement of university programs where the future technological development for racing can find talented personnel to drive the industry forward. Indiana State University, where Bryan Clauson was playing a drag racing simulator, Northern Ohio University and other institutions for higher education, almost certainly have a role to play in the development of racing's future. With Dallara's new plant being built in Speedway, Indiana, and a host of racing businesses already located on Indy's west side and in Hendricks County west of Speedway, the young men and women in school today need to be invited to shows like IMIS to build their own networks and provide an outlet for them to serve internships, or find future employment in racing related firms. The sky is the limit and racing takes money and talent. These were all on display here at IMIS and I am glad I got the chance to attend this year. Now the real work begins.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Indy Motorsports Show Packs 'em In

The only thing missing at the International Motorsports Industry Show (IMIS) today was the smell of racing exhaust fumes. If you couldn't find what you needed today for your race team, then you just weren't looking hard enough. I have been to lots of industry trade shows in my former profession and I would have to say this one ranks near the top in terms of the quality of displays and the professionalism of the exhibitor presentations. Due to my basketball coaching obligations, I wasn't able to stay as long as I would have liked today, but I will start bright and early tomorrow with a meeting before the exhibit opens with one of the exhibitors with whom I spoke - Rydin Decal. These guys appear to make every kind of decal or graphic one could want to stick on a race car.

Anyone who knows me knows that my mechanical ability is nil but I love to drive. What I wouldn't give to take a spin in some of the machinery that was on display! Too late to offer up my first born, but perhaps tomorrow I can swing another type of deal with someone! But seriously, I overheard lots of conversations between exhibitors and racers that indicated to me that business was being done today, and that is the point of any trade show after all. Many of these exhibitors will be packing up after the show ends tomorrow and heading for PRI to do it all over again, and Indianapolis should be grateful that Tony Stewart and his people have put this second annual show together as a fantastic Midwestern addition to the convention calendar. Next year's show is already scheduled for November 30 through December 2, 2011 and I already have it on my calendar. Seeing all this great racing gear has me salivating for the 2011 racing season already and I'll have more to add tomorrow. In the meantime, I have updated my slideshow from earlier today and will be adding links to video over the next few days as I finish my editing and production work. See you at the Convention Center!

Motorsports Show In Indy - First Slideshow

International Motorsports Industry Show Invades Indy

Motorsports companies from around the globe have converged on Indianapolis this week under the theme of "IMIS Means Business, Because Indy is Racing". If the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the capital of auto racing, then this industry show is the capital annex as the sold out exhibit hall would indicate. I will be working the show and reporting from the media center today and tomorrow with news and photos of all that is going on. We are waiting right now for a press conference where news of the addition of ARCA stock cars to the O'Reilly Raceway Park schedule is to be announced. The ARCA series will be added to the ORP Kroger Speedfest race week leading up to the 2011 Brickyard 400 as part of the Thursday night activities that have historically involved the USAC Midget and Silver Crown Series. It will be the first time since 1985 that ARCA has raced at ORP and promises a great night of racing with this triple header.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Motorsports Show Comes to Indy; Carpenter Takes Wheel at Sarah Fisher Racing

This week the International Motorsports Industry Show opens at the Indiana Convention Center with a sold out exhibit hall and roughly double the interest from 2009. This should not be surprising to those from the Indianapolis area where the automobile and auto racing have been centerpieces of Indianapolis culture and development for over a century. The show’s theme is “Indy Is Racing” for the simple fact that motorsports companies are in abundance in the region and more will surely follow as the Dallara Indycar plant takes roots in Speedway. I will be covering this year’s show for American Motor Journal and will be blogging during the show whenever possible. It should be a dynamic event for the industry and I hope to make a small contribution to the media coverage of this important industry gathering.

Meanwhile, news in the motorsports community continues to unfold even though all the major racing series have completed their seasons. I tend to specialize in Indycar racing, so that is my normal focus and the IZOD series continues to gain momentum following the recent Dallara factory groundbreaking. Today, Sarah Fisher Racing announced that Ed Carpenter will be piloting the #67 Dollar General machine in 2011 for nine (9) races as Sarah begins her transition out of the cockpit and into team ownership on a full time basis. Seen here signing autographs with Ed before a Butler basketball game, perhaps the Bulldogs will come on board as an associate sponsor to cement Ed and Sarah's Butler connection! In other driver news, Tony Kanaan recently tested with Dragon de Ferran racing so the rumors of an all-Brazilian pairing may be true after all, even though no formal announcement has been made. The FAZZT race team has tested a Chinese driver recently so a two car team for 2011 might be in the offing.
Other recent news includes Lotus jumping into the engine building fray for 2012 so Indycar teams will now have three engine marks from which to choose: Lotus, the recently announced return of GM through its Chevrolet brand, and historical supplier Honda. This will no doubt present additional technical challenges for Indycar inspectors but they have plenty of time to get ready.
For the 2011 schedule, it looks like the Edmonton race is back on again after the City Council voted last week to continue supporting the event, now that expenses with repaving have been ironed out. That is fantastic news for the Indycar series and Canadian fans in particular since the feared hole in the schedule has now been plugged with the confirmation that Edmonton will be held after all. In addition, Firestone ran a tire test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway recently and the finale for the 2011 season appears to be locked in for the weekend of October 16th. No doubt the season ending awards celebration will now also be held in Las Vegas following the race so a good time will surely be had by all. It will also be the last time the current spec Dallara-Honda combo runs and everyone will likely be glad to kiss this workhorse goodbye in anticipation of more technical variety and competition for 2012.
Finally, the Road to Indy deserves mentioning as it too is building momentum. The crowning of the 2010 USAC National Driver’s champion Bryan Clauson of Noblesville, Indiana, has earned him a seat for selected Firestone Indy Lights races in 2011 along with $300,000 from Indycar to help pay those bills. I’ve seen Bryan race many times and it would be hard to find a more deserving guy for this support. Bryan’s first chance to run a Lights race will come on the “big track” at Indy next May in the Freedom 100 held on Carburetion Day, the Friday before the Indy 500. In true short tracker fashion, he will then probably go to O’Reilly Raceway Park the next night and run a USAC midget in the annual “Night Before the 500” event.
That’s it for now. See you at the motorsports show or a racetrack near your home soon, camera in hand.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Indycar Silly Season in Full Swing

Since the 2010 Indycar season ended October 2nd at Miami, news about the series has been swirling, and it's not just driver changes that are making this silly season one of the wackiest in recent memory. At a time when it could be argued that any Indycar publicity is good publicity, announcements made and rumors surfacing since the season finale have been alternately shocking and exhilarating for Indycar followers. The biggest driver news comes from Andretti Autosport, where Tony Kanaan was released from his contract due to the withdrawal of sponsor 7-Eleven from the team. Paired with that announcement was the news that Andretti had inked Ryan Hunter-Reay to a new two year deal. Seen in this photo having a conversation before pre-race introductions at Kentucky Speedway this season, one wonders what TK and RHR were discussing. Setup information? Post-season plans? I doubt they were talking about contracts.
On the one hand, I am very happy for Ryan to have some job security, if there is such a thing in Indycars these days. On the other hand, Tony has been the ultimate team player with Andretti and deserves a top ride in the series for 2011. Since Penske seems set, the best prospects would seem to be either Ganassi, where he almost went a few years ago, or KV Racing. I think he could help KV the most and serve as a mentor to young gun Viso and newcomer Sato who suffered through a miserable 2010 season with crashes and DNF's. If only two seats are available for KV next year and Tony takes one, then Viso is probably the odd man out since Sato has backing from his homeland that should keep him in the ride. With Lotus announcing recently it will partner with KV in an increased technological role in upcoming season, this team could be on the rise and Tony is just the guy to take them to the top. Tony is also likely to be the most fit driver in the paddock next year as he takes on the moniker of the "World's Fastest Triathlete" and competes in that grueling sport to get ready physically.
Speaking of Ganassi, a three car team for 2011 is not out of the question with the recent story of General Motors coming back to Indycars in 2012 as an engine supplier. While the Chipster claims he knows nothing about this possibility, he is not one to show his cards prematurely. No announcement has been made about GM's plans but reports are one may come soon, perhaps even this week. Having Kanaan on hand for 2011 to help prepare for GM's return to Indycars the next year makes a ton of sense for Ganassi who would then have a three-headed monster with Dario, Dixie and TK fighting it out with the Penske trio of Helio, Briscoe and Power week after week. That would be a sight to see. In the end, I think Andretti is the loser in this particular version of musical chairs with their primary setup guy out and now having to rely on Danica, RHR and Marco to get the team's cars into the top five on a regular basis. Even though Danica and TK had a wonderful dice at Miami, they had on-track issues elsewhere and it is clear to me that Andretti had to go with those who had financial backing. Rest assured he was not going to give up son Marco to another team. If Andretti can win races in 2011, I think it will be Hunter-Reay that shows them how, but I still think they will end up whiffing ethanol fumes from the Penske and Ganassi boys.
Sandwiched between the Kanaan and GM announcements was the surprising news from Edmonton that the scheduled 2011 race had been cancelled over cost issues associated with paving the airport course. That is going to be a tough blow for guys like Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani who rely on the annual Canadian swing for their sponsor support. It's really a shame for Canadian fans who have supported Edmonton very nicely in the race's short tenure. The worst part of the deal is the gap that now leaves in the Indycar schedule, although other Canadian alternatives are being explored. A photographer friend of mine suggested that Michigan be slotted into the Edmonton space and my response was they should run 500 miles while they are at it, like they used to. With Michigan an ISC track, that option probably isn't there for 2011 but if GM is truly coming back to Indycars, racing at either Michigan or Belle Isle in Detroit will almost surely be back on the Indycar schedule of the future to be close to GM's home base.
Indycar has also announced financial support for the USAC National Driver's champ to get a shot in Firestone Indy Lights for 2011. A $300,000 prize will be awarded by Indycar to that driver to help them fund at least a partial season ride. It's a fantastic gesture although I have to say it sounds like deja vu all over again with comments accompanying the announcement that indicate Indycar's desire to tap into USAC's traditional midget, sprints and Silver Crown open wheel series for future driver talent to have a shot at running the Indy 500. Lord knows there's plenty of talent running USAC events - just look at NASCAR and how many drivers have followed Tony Stewart to the taxicab circuit. How this effort will match up with the "Road to Indy" series (Star Mazda and US F2000) is anyone's guess right now, but a ladder system of some kind is essential.
Unfortunately, a ladder system for Indycars is stymied by a lack of competive rides in the IZOD series. Tony Kanaan's future is the domino that will set the others falling, and even with Dan Wheldon likely leaving Panther, new drivers have few options once they rise to Indy Lights and show they have race winning potential. This season's crop of Indy Lights drivers is loaded with talented shoes like James Davison, James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann and others. Where do they go to keep climbing the ladder? I look forward to the 2011 season for the answers.
While I am working on my 2011 travel and race photography schedule, if there are teams, sponsors or drivers out there who need an experienced motorsports photographer to help promote their efforts next year, then look no further. My recent work with American Motor Journal has been very rewarding and although Indycars are where my heart is, I would like to expand my race coverage to include more personal engagements in Indycars, Grand-Am, American LeMans, USAC and other series. If it moves, I can shoot it and I always bring back pictures. That's what I do.
Finally, USAC driver Shane Hmiel is no longer undergoing treatment at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis and will be continuing his rehabilitation near the Hmiel home in North Carolina. The news about Shane recently has continued to get better and I hope he is able to make a full recovery, even if he doesn't race again.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Congrats to ARCA Champ Patrick Sheltra; Prayers for Shane Hmiel

Congratulations to 2010 ARCA Champion Patrick Sheltra for holding off Craig Goess by 20 points to take the season title. Shooting ARCA series races at Salem Speedway and elsewhere is always a treat and the championship couldn't come for a more deserving guy. The primary reason I enjoy ARCA so much is the opportunity to see up-and-coming racers learn their trade and do it on a variety of race tracks. The 2010 season was made even more remarkable by the fact that 14 different drivers found victory lane out of 20 races and 11 drivers got an ARCA win for the first time. The ARCA teams and drivers are always very approachable and the atmosphere is more laid back than many of the other more high profile series. These guys (and ladies) race and make no mistake about their desire to finish first regardless of the type of circuit they are running on any given weekend.

There's no other series that runs high banked short tracks, superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, dirt miles like DuQuoin and Springfield, and road courses. To win an ARCA championship is truly a challenge and the weekly additions of one-off racers who arrive to gain stock car experience makes it even more difficult for the regulars who run the whole season for the points championship. With 2652 laps run over 20 races, lots can go wrong once the beating and banging starts, and fans should not overlook this gem of a series when making their racing travel plans for 2011. I know I hope to shoot several more ARCA races next year and can't wait for their season to get rolling again at Daytona next February.

On a more somber note, by now everyone in the racing community has heard about Shane Hmiel's wicked USAC Silver Crown series accident at Terre Haute recently. My photos are from his back-to-back USAC Sprint Car wins this summer at Salem and Winchester where he thoroughly dominated the competition on successive weekends and he really seemed to be enjoying himself. His injuries at Terre Haute are thankfully no longer considered life threatening although he has had a number of surgeries since the accident and has a long way to go. It would be a shame if he never races again since he has overcome a lot the last few years both on and off the racetrack to regain a winning form. He has lots of friends at all levels of racing pulling for him to make a complete recovery - even Jamie MacMurray recognized Shane after Jamie's most recent NASCAR win and of course Tony Stewart has been quoted often with supporting words for Shane and the Hmiel family. You can follow Shane's recovery on Facebook at "Shane Hmiel - Road to Recovery" where his family is posting regular updates about his ongoing recovery at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.

As a racing photographer, the harsh reality we face every time we look through the lens at the racetrack is that someone we know could be seriously hurt or worse. When it happens to people you feel you know, there is a sympathetic reaction that is difficult to explain to those not involved in this crazy and dangerous sport we love. If Shane saw me on the street, I don't know if he would even recognize me, but that doesn't matter. Anyone who straps in and risks their lives in racing is a friend of mine and I don't like it when someone ends up with extensive sheet time. I sign my life away every time I get a media credential at a race too but that doesn't matter either since we share a passion for the speed and noise that repeatedly makes Steve McQueen's words in the movie "LeMans" so meaningful to me: "Racing is life; everything else is just waiting."

Thank goodness Shane is on the mend. He and his family still need our prayers to get through this most difficult time. I'm hoping I get many more chances to take his picture in the Winner's Circle in years to come. Godspeed and God bless.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dario Franchitti Takes IZOD Indycar Season Title

Congratulations to Dario Franchitti and Target Chip Ganassi Racing for taking the IZOD Indycar Series championship this past Saturday! It was a championship day for the Franchitti family as well, since Dario's brother Marino helped Patron Highcroft Racing win the Petit LeMans race at Road Atlanta and take the American LeMans Series LMP2 crown for the team's second consecutive LMP2 series title. Dario's title winning run at Homestead-Miami was a textbook case of how to win a season championship: he had to earn all the bonus points available and win the race in case his only contender, Penske Racing's Will Power, had a strong run. He had to take pole position - he did - then lead the most laps - he did - to be in position to win the race and he would win the Indycar title no matter what Power did. Just past the halfway point of the 200 lap race, Dario had hit the first two benchmarks with Power running fourth. Before the race hit three-quarters distance, Power had to really push hard to get to the front as he knew at that point that he had to finish ahead of Dario to win the series title. Alas, Power scrubbed the wall and damaged his Dallara's suspension in lapped traffic to put himself out of the race. Once that happened, Dario backed off knowing he only had to finish 10th to win the title and write the last chapter in that season winning championship textbook.

Power's inexperience on oval tracks got the best of him and ultimately he could not muster the speed or race savvy over the last four races of the season (all ovals) to get the job done. Arguably the move of Dario's season occurred at Chicagoland, where he started his assault on Power's points lead, when the team opted for a fuel-only pit stop late in the race which vaulted him to the race win. With Power struggling on ovals, Will couldn't close the deal but completed a spectacular comeback season just 5 points behind Dario in second place. No doubt Power's 2010 experience will benefit him next year and I expect he will challenge for the title again in 2011. With a team like Penske behind him, and the Verizon sponsorship rumored to be leaving NASCAR to fully support, Power, he most likely will be a force to reckon with next season.

And what can you say about Chip Ganassi's 2010 season? Dario wins the Indy 500 and the Indycar title for the Chipster. Ganassi backed cars win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. His Telmex Rolex team wins the Grand Am title in dominant fashion despite rules changes mid-season which were meant to even the playing field; it didn't happen! While Ganassi's drivers did not win as many individual Indycar races in 2010 as arch rival Roger Penske's drivers did, Chip came up big in all the high dollar events and you can bet there was a heckuva party in South Beach this weekend after Dario gift wrapped another Indycar title for Chip for the third year in a row. Dario's teammate Scott Dixon took the series during 2008 when Dario was trying his hand at NASCAR. In effect, Dario has now won the Indycar title three straight seasons (2007, 2009 and 2010) with a year off for the taxicab circuit. No doubt Dario's last two titles were more challenging than the first since these came following unification with ChampCar and the driver talent and car counts have increased dramatically since 2007.

So what's next for Indycars? The off season has already started with a bang, given the recent announcement of Graham Rahal securing sponsorship from Service Central. Could he end up at Ganassi also? It's quite possible, but Newman Haas is more likely. Graham's sponsorship may be at the expense of Sarah Fisher who had that funding this year for her second car and who has already talked about moving into an owner-only role to keep her small team afloat heading into the final season with the current equipment package. And what is going to happen with Andretti Autosport? It has been reported that long time sponsor 7-Eleven will not be back next year for Tony Kanaan and that Michael Andretti has given Tony "free agent" status to pursue another ride for 2011. With the struggles Andretti had in 2010 fielding four cars and keeping Ryan Hunter-Reay on track, they could shrink to a two-car team with only Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick at the wheel next year. That would really be a shame as Marco has not fulfilled the promise of the Andretti name and Danica's Indycar tenure is questionable with all the NASCAR interest in her future. To top it off, Danica and Kanaan put on the best racing of the night at Homestead, running wheel to wheel for the last 20 laps as she grabbed second place in by far her best race of the year. Kanaan passed on an opportunity to join Ganassi when Dan Wheldon left a few years ago so could that opportunity arise again in 2011? Chip would have his own three-car juggernaut to challenge Penske's stable then. And will Helio Castroneves finally win that elusive first Indycar title? I can hardly wait to find out.

On the lighter side, I thought it was funny that Dario referred to the new trophy for Indycar season title as "the naked guy on the unicycle" in his interview Sunday night with Dave Despain on Speed's "Wind Tunnel" program. And my favorite line of the whole season was Bryan Herta referring to his team at Indy as "Two Men & A Truck Racing" when his rookie driver Sebastion Saavedra was finally in the Indy 500 despite crashing their car on bump day after all the last minute moves by other teams put them in then out then back in the race several times.

With the 2011 season opener 5 months away, silly season is just getting underway and the teams will be running the current Dallara package for the last time during 2011. Indycar's czar for the new equipment rules, Tony Cotman, is scheduled to be on "Wind Tunnel" with Robin Miller this Sunday so it will be very interesting to find out where preparations for 2012 stand. Lotus has announced it will expand its role with KV Racing and build ancillary parts for the next gen Dallara tub, but everyone wants to know what's going on with the engine rules so that design work can begin in earnest for the next turbo era in Indycars in 2012. Randy Bernard's first year as Indycar executive has gone better than I ever would have expected and the return to Milwaukee next year is a major coup for the series in returning to its roots. As the teams head off to assess their prospects for 2011, so do I as well, as I hope to shoot at least half the 2011 races (preferably all) and get away from the couch racing I have had to do this year. Only time will tell, but as they say, more will be revealed. See you at the track!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Franchitti & Power Face Off At Homestead for Indycar Title

It has finally come down to this: two men and their teams face off for the 2010 IZOD Indycar season championship in the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In what may well be the last race ever for Indycars at this track, it is likely that the season champion will not be crowned until the last lap Saturday night. It is certainly fitting that the two most successful Indycar drivers, and teams, of 2010 go head to head for all the marbles this weekend as Dario owns the season's oval track crown and Power pocketed the road course title. Experience is clearly on Dario's side with two Indycar championships already on his resume, and Power is not known for oval track prowess. For some it may be hard to believe that the season title remains in doubt as Power had a healthy points lead just a few weeks ago. Anyone who follows Indycar racing knows, however, that points lead can evaporate in a hurry and titles are most often won on the season's last day, if not on the last lap itself, as with Dario's title in 2007.

What is hard to believe is that the season is coming to a close already and that it has been nearly seven months since the first race in Brazil. With the season opening on a street course replete with a first lap crash, the competition has been closer than ever in the penultimate season with the current Dallara chassis and multiple story lines have played out. The Penske-Ganassi feud has continued to rage for the top of the podium more often than not, with Penske drivers taking nine wins to Ganassi's five. Four women raced in the same Indy 500 for the first time ever and Mike Conway punctuated Dario's Indy win with a vicious shunt on the last lap; here's hoping he is back in a DRR machine next year. The news from Andretti Autosport has been mostly bad with the exception of Tony Kanaan's win at Iowa and the salvation of Ryan Hunter-Reay's season when additional sponsorship contributions from IZOD and others prolonged his hopes that were boosted by his Long Beach win. KV racing's season has been largely forgettable, and the repair bills for wrecked race cars must be astronomical; kudos to KV for hanging in there this season. Helio's run-in with the officials at Edmonton was memorable as was his late season comeback to climb fences at Kentucky and Japan. But the biggest story of the season has been Will Power's resurrection following a major back injury at Sonoma a year ago. He has shown dominance and extreme savvy on the road and street circuits, and his pace generally couldn't be matched on the twisty-bit circuits whether qualifying or race trim was involved. With his best ever showing on an oval recently, he seems to have new confidence heading into the season finale but one good oval race does not a season champion make. Dario's measured run to second in the standings has been inexorable and as much as I would love to see Power finish his fairy tale comeback season with the series title, my guess is that this one will go to the red and white Target boys again with Dario going all out for pole, leading the most laps and taking the race win to ensure the title is his no matter what the Penske team does to support Power's push for the top of the ladder Saturday night.
On a personal note, my Indycar season didn't pan out quite the way I had hoped last winter as I missed Mid Ohio and Chicagoland with credential difficulties. Nonetheless, I've been able to shoot several other races in a variety of series, the couch racing has been exciting and enjoyable, and shooting the races I did make has provided plenty of material for this blog, my website and my page on American Motor Journal. I have also recently taken the plunge into Twitter and am really enjoying following drivers in the series as they go about their business and the reporting of others who are journalists or fans of the fastest series in the world. So my racing season has wound down, just as it has for the Indycars. Gotta love it, no matter what!

Is it May yet?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Armstrong Takes Salem ARCA Thriller

Hoosier young gun Dakoda Armstrong held off Joey Coulter to win at Salem Speedway last night before a large and enthusiastic crowd. The young man with the movie star good looks picked up his second career ARCA win to go along with his equally thrilling victory at Talladega earlier this year. Armstrong and Coulter fought it out over the last 40 laps at a torrid pace, slicing their way through heavy race traffic, eventually lapping everyone up through fifth place as Tom Hessert and Mikey Kile were the only other drivers to finish on the lead lap. Pole winner Craig Goess had an early lengthy pit stop to fix a broken throttle linkage so his spot atop the season point standings was short lived. Tom Hessert now leads the ARCA point charts over former Salem winner Patrick Sheltra and Goess, but the margin from first to third is only 30 points with two more races to go.

Having been to Salem several times for the ARCA races, this one was different than any of the others I had shot. The usual beating and banging didn't materialize and this race was marked by long periods of green flag racing. This eventually worked to Armstrong's advantage as he kept his fenders clean and never put a wheel wrong after taking the lead on a restart from Justin Marks. Dakoda is now in fifth in season points behind Frank Kimmel and ahead of Marks with an outside shot at the season title if the other contenders ahead of him run into trouble. As we were walking along pit lane before the race, I mentioned I would like to see Dakoda win and that his Talladega win was one of the most exciting stock car races I had seen, with his multi-car pass on the last lap there to win. On this night at Salem, he was not to be denied and showed the maturity of a wily veteran cutting through traffic without losing much momentum lap after lap to the checkers. His crew was ecstatic afterwards and Dakoda said he felt like he had Coulter covered as long as he did not give up his line. To Coulter's credit, there were several opportunities to put a bumper to Armstrong, but he raced him clean right to the end and his second place was well deserved.

I love the racing at Salem where the tight confines make for exciting battles. The racing line is different from one end of the track to the other, with Turns 1 & 2 offering multiple grooves while the fast way through Turns 3 & 4 is up high right against the wall. Pit lane is notoriously crowded as the stockers pit from pit entrance coming off of Turn 4 all the way around Turn 1 and there is only one exit lane. Tight, bumpy, fast and racy: that sums up Salem Speedway and the ARCA boys put on another great show for the fans on a beautiful night in southern Indiana. I also had some fun tweeting from the track during the race with my recently added Twitter account and I expect I'll do more of that from races in the future. On this night, Dakoda got his just rewards, I got pictures for likely the last night of my 2010 racing season and my ARCA friends head off to Kansas and Rockingham to finish off their chapionship chase in style.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Indycar & ARCA Championships Wind Down

The race driver with the superhero name, Will Power, leads the IZOD Indycar brigade into Japan this weekend with a loose grip on the series' championship points lead and hopes to capitalize on his recent improvement in oval track performance with only the Homestead oval to follow. Already the road course season champion, Power can expand his slim season points lead with a top finish. Unfortunately, Motegi has been the scene of trouble for Penske drivers in recent years and all it will take is a DNF or a bad pit stop for Power, ala Kentucky, to give his Ganassi opponents Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon the room they need to squeeze into the top spot in points. Power's teammate Helio Castroneves still has a shot at a top season finish, but must win to leapfrog the Ganassi boys and take points from them in the process. Motegi has been the scene of Penske's undoing in the past as Helio lost a sure win on a fuel gamble to Danica in her only Indycar win a couple of years ago and Ryan Briscoe threw away the win last year when he hit the pit wall on his last pit stop while leading. Best case scenario for Power and Helio is for them to finish 1-2 and for Dario and Dixon to have troubles that leave them more than 54 points behind heading to the finale at Homestead. However, I would really love to see Power keep his points lead and have the series title be a three man shootout at Homestead with Power coming out on top, as he is a very likable guy and is the comeback story of the year in Indycar racing following his serious accident and back injury at Sonoma a year ago.
The Indycar Rookie of the Year title will also likely go down to the wire as Simona De Silvestro leads Bertrand Baguette by a slim margin. These two have been surprising in their first seasons and Simona has been a breath of fresh air with strong performances from her small team. Baguette has been the more surprising of the two, coming to the series as a relative unknown with no oval track experience while Simona hit the scene with Atlantics wins on her resume as more of a known quantity. Her poor finishes have most often not been of her doing, getting crashed out by others or simply finding herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Baguette is coming off his best oval track qualifying performance of the year and needs another strong weekend for his team to put him in position to take the rookie title. With both drivers battling for season honors and recent F1 interest expressed in Simona, lets hope the fireworks are left for after the races and they can both finish the year with impressive finishes. I'm sure their teams will be keeping an eye on each other this weekend to set up a final showdown at Homestead. A season title could be the springboard either of these teams towards new sponsorships and the promise of even greater success for 2011.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, we will be at Salem Speedway in southern Indiana for the ARCA stock car race watching another series championship battle wind down. By the time we get back from Salem late Saturday night, the Indycar race will be underway on Versus and the ARCA series will be down to its final two races with several drivers in position to take the season title. Steve Arpin (pictured) won at Salem this past April and will be a contender to win again this weekend driving for the Venturini team. If he had not missed two races for NASCAR events, he would also be a contender for the season title - he could still find his way to near the top of the points battle with some racing luck and if the current leaders have problems this weekend. And lord knows, Salem has a way of creating problems for drivers with its rugged surface, high banking and heavy traffic often making life difficult for even the best of the bunch. Current points leader Patrick Sheltra has won at Salem before so he is going to be a factor and needs a solid finish to stay ahead of Craig Goess and Tom Hessert with only a 15 point differential among the top three. Legendary ARCA champion Frank Kimmel is fourth, only 140 points out of first place, and has won at "home track" Salem more often than any of the current driving crop. Justin Marks is in fifth 185 points behind Sheltra so anything can happen this weekend and give these, and other drivers in the top ten, hope heading to the last two ARCA events at Kansas and Rockingham. Last year's season title essentially went down to the last lap at the Rock and I see no reason why it won't happen again.
By now you may be wondering what these series and Motegi and Salem have in common. Aside from having season points battles that are likely not going to be decided until the last laps are run and both are racing on oval tracks, there's another element that many may not have considered. Years ago while working for the State of Indiana, I had the pleasure of working with many Japanese auto companies to help find locations for manufacturing and/or distribution facilities in Indiana. They uniformly seemed to love southern Indiana, and many eventually decided to locate in communities such as Seymour and Columbus, both of which we drive through to get to Salem. Of course Honda's new plant is in Greensburg, also in southern Indiana, and the state has become a hub for suppliers of all the major Japanese auto companies. I was often told that parts of southern Indiana reminded the Japanese of their home country - rolling hills lush with greenery, full of opportunities for business. Having never been to Japan, I had to take their word for that and much has changed in the world - and in auto racing for that matter - in the 20+ years since I held that job. Who would have imagined back in the '80's that Honda would play a vital role in Indycars and in the economy of the Hoosier state? Who would have thought that Toyotas would be fighting for wins on the high banks of the Salem half-mile where ARCA has run 87 times before? Not me, and probably not many others either.
Wherever you are in the world this weekend, enjoy the races. I'll see you at the track, Canon vest on and hat turned backwards for good luck, bringing home pictures for American Motor Journal.

Monday, September 13, 2010

2012 IndyCar: Tony Cotman's blog -

2012 IndyCar: Tony Cotman's blog -

Here's the man in charge of the new Indycar design talking about the process. Keep an eye on this one! People seem really excited about the possibility of variety of car styles built around a common tub. Very interesting reading.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

2011 Indycar Schedule Confirmed; John Paul Jr. Battles Major Disease

The IZOD Indycar Series made the formal announcement of the 2011 schedule from the Milwaukee Mile September 10th and there are no real surprises, except for the fact that there are no oval track races prior to the opening of practice for the 2011 Indy 500. I guessed wrong on some of the dates in my last blog post so the following is the corrected schedule as announced by Indycar CEO Randy Bernard Friday. It was a shame that had technical glitches with the audio of the press conference, since Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon and Johnny Rutherford all participated in the press conference. Nonetheless I listened and watched to get calendar items for 2011.

March 27 - St Pete

April 10 - Barber

April 17 - Long Beach

May 1 - Brazil

May 29 - Indy 500

June 11 - Texas Twin 275's (night)

June 19 - Milwaukee

June 25 - Iowa (night)

July 10 - Toronto

July 24 - Edmonton

August 7 - Mid Ohio (with ALMS)

August 14 - New Hampshire

August 28 - Infineon

Sept 4 - Labor Day - Baltimore

Sept 18 - Motegi

Oct 2- Kentucky

Oct 16 - Vegas/Fontana.

Unrelated to the 2011 schedule is a story contained in an email I got from a photog friend on a tragic note: former Indycar driver and Michigan 500 winner John Paul Jr. is suffering from Huntington's Disease and was recently featured in a UCLA Health Center video which focused on their research into treatment for the disease. As others have noted, seeing John Paul Jr. struggle to walk and talk is heartbreaking as he was a superb talent who never quite got the breaks he needed in Indycars, and whose father had serious legal troubles that cast a shadow over JP's marketability as an Indycar driver. to see the video and learn more about John Paul's battle with the disease, follow this link to the YouTube video. God bless you JP, and godspeed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

IZOD Indycar Series 2011 Schedule Ready

I'm no Tim Cindric, but I can take an educated guess at next year's IZOD Indycar schedule, especially since some of the races are already locked in. The formal announcement of the 2011 schedule from Indycar CEO Randy Bernard is set to be made Friday September 10th from Milwaukee which means that Indycars will be back at the Milwaukee Mile next year. The Indianapolis Star confirmed Milwaukee's addition today. Here's how the schedule may shape up, given the fact that Bernard has already stated there will be 16 or 17 races in 2011. The first quarter of the schedule will probably be much like 2010. After that, it could get interesting.

March 13 - Brazil

March 27 - St Pete

April 17 - Long Beach

April 10 - Barber

April 30/May 1 or May 7/8 - These are open dates before the opening of practice for the Indy 500, assuming the Speedway sticks with the single week format for practice and qualifications. Although it hasn't been mentioned much, Atlanta is my wild card race for one of these weekends. In my opinion, an oval should be run before Indy and Atlanta is a logical warm weather venue. However, Milwaukee could end up here instead of the traditional date immediately after the 500, although spring weather is iffy at best and I think an August date makes more sense - more on that in a minute. Fontana could also slot in here but perhaps having two open weekends prior to the start of practice would be good for the teams to recharge and get ready for the busy summer months.

May 29 - Indy 500: 100 years since the first Indy 500 was run!

June 11 - Texas Twin 275's. Texas always puts on a great show and having two points paying races on the same night is an idea whose time has come. It could allow someone who crashes out of the first race the chance to race again with a backup car. While they are at it, why not invert the start of the second race from the finishing order of the first race?

June 19 - Iowa. This would wrap up a month long stretch of oval races. The bunching of similar races is a great move economically so the teams aren't switching back and forth from road course to oval setups so often.

July 3 - This is another wild card weekend with the Independence Day holiday open now that Watkins Glen has gone by the wayside. Mid Ohio or Infineon could go here and start a stretch of road course events.

July 17- Toronto: the start of the Canadian swing.

July 24 - Edmonton. Back to ovals for the next two races.

August 7 - Milwaukee. This is where I think this event fits best, as it is during the Wisconsin State Fair and could be a headline attraction and help the gate immensely. The promoters also then probably have a partner in State government to help promote the race - important since the past promoters have had "issues".

August 14 - New Hampshire. Another flat mile oval, but the first time for Indycars on the newer mildly progressive banking. Now back to road courses.

August 21 - Mid Ohio or Infineon. This has been the Infineon weekend the past few years but Mid Ohio has to go somewhere if Milwaukee gets the date in early August. I'd prefer Mid Ohio here for travel logistics for the teams and it is close to where the race has been run in the past. Keeping ALMS or getting the Rolex Series as companion race events at Mid Ohio would be a bonus.

Sept 4 - Labor Day - Baltimore. A new street circuit which caused Kentucky to be moved, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Sept 17/18 - Motegi. Honda must have this race and the Indycars need to race in Japan to pay them back for their support of the series.

Oct 2- Kentucky. This date was announced last weekend at Kentucky and it will no longer be a night race, which is a shame as the showers of sparks will not be nearly as spectacular in the daylight. Fall weather could be an issue however.

Oct 16 - Vegas/Fontana. Bernard has already stated he would like to finish in Las Vegas so they can wine and dine the sponsors and have the season ending awards banquet in style. This would fit with the idea that Indycars are "sexy" again and what better place that "Lost Wages" to show that off. I seriously doubt that Fontana will make the grade and it would seem to just be leverage for the series to get what they want from Vegas.

Enough about the schedule. Here are a couple of other ideas I have to spice up the Series. Set an all star sprint race with one pit stop for all race and pole winners. This would be a made for TV non-points event on an oval. It needs a sponsor so go after Venom, Monster or one of the other energy drinks to get behind this with a big payoff for the winner. These cars will be obsolete after 2011 anyway so why not have this at Vegas after the championship has been decided?

Next, figure out a way to award extra points toward the season championship for every driver that makes the Fast 6 (or Fast 9 at Indy) in qualifying. Now every qualifying session becomes meaningful for a driver's (and team's) season totals.

Finally, award bonus points in the overall season standings for the driver(s) who win the Andretti road course and Foyt oval championships. It wouldn't have to be much, but this could be an added incentive and make the overall season championship even more interesting with the road course title wrapping up in Baltimore.

I'm looking forward to Friday's formal schedule announcement to see if any of my speculation is on target. Even if not, at least I'll know what I need for making my travel plans for 2011.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Castroneves Takes Kentucky Indycar Win On Fumes

Is it any wonder that Helio Castroneves finds a way to victory lane so often? He did it again and climbed the fences at Kentucky Speedway tonight after savvy fuel strategy left him out at the end when virtually all of the other front runners had to make a last stop for a splash of fuel. He called team boss Tim Cindric a "genius" in the winner's circle and left pole winner Ed Carpenter lamenting a fine second place in front of Dan Wheldon who led a significant number of laps for his Panther team. I'm not sure I've ever seen Helio so excited in Victory Lane and the Penske team sure has the answers when it comes to race strategy.

The most entertaining racing of the evening came from Tony Kanaan as he stormed from the back to run in the top five until the last ten laps when he too had to make a stop for ethanol. Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay also ran well to get to the front but a problem with the left rear knocked him out of the running very late. Kentucky has been a showcase for close, side-by-side racing with exciting finishes and tonight's race was no exception. While there was no photo finish tonight, the leaders all pit around lap 140-142 and I didn't think there was any way anyone could go the distance from there. But Helio, Cindric and the Team Penske guys found a way, just as they so often do. It's no wonder they are often considered the team to beat whenever they show up at the track. More pix will follow with time when I get back to Indy. Next year this race will run in early October since the Labor Day weekend slot has been given over to a new street race in Baltimore. I hope to be back here again next year for more of the best and fastest racing on earth. You should be here to.

Pippa Mann Gets First Indy Lights Win

Lady racer Pippa Mann picked up her first Firestone Indy Lights win today by running away from the field after an early red flag due to a nasty three car crash in Turn 4 at the end of the first lap. She was so excited in Victory Lane that it looked like she didn't know what to do next in the process of accepting victory awards! We were at Nashville when Ana Beatriz got her first Indy Lights win and it is great to be here at Kentucky Speedway to see another up and coming woman racer find her way to the head of the charts. She crashed out early at Indy this year after winning the pole but that wasn't her fault as others spun and collected her then. She had them covered today and another win is added to the record books for Sam Schmidt, who always seems to find the best young drivers and get them to Victory Lane in Indy Lights. Well done Pippa! She has come a long way in the last couple of years and having Sam continue to see success is a great thing for the Firestone Indy Lights series. Phillip Major spun and was hit by Sebastian Saavedra and then by Stefan Wilson to bring out the early red flag but everyone walked away from what could have been a very nasty situation as Major slid down the track and competitors had to go high and low to miss him. Unfortunately, not everyone did. Once the race resumed, Pippa set sail and led the entire race of 67 laps to the checkers. Before I head out for the Indycar race, here's a quick slide show of the Lights action.

Indycars 200th Race: Carpenter Steals Pole at Kentucky Speedway

With the IZOD Indycar series season winding down, part-timer Ed Carpenter snatched the pole from Will Power at Kentucky Speedway yesterday for tonight's 300 mile event. This race marks the 200th since the formation of the Indy Racing League and Indycar series and if last weekend's wild affair at Chicagoland is a prelude to tonight's action, fans here at the track and watching on Versus will be treated to quite a show. It is fitting that Carpenter is on pole here as he nearly won his first Indycar race ever last year at this track after a 20 lap side-by-side battle with Ryan Briscoe, losing in a photo finish. Ed's teammate for this race is Dan Wheldon who will start third. The most fun tonight may be watching Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay push through the field from the last row after Tony's car setup was woeful in qualifying and RHR hit the fence yesterday. I am set up in the Kentucky Speedway media center now and will bring photos and more race coverage later this evening as the Firestone Indy Lights race rolls off in a little over an hour from now and the Indycars follow under the lights. It should be spectacular and I am so glad to be here for the 200th Indycar event under the IRL sanctioning. It's time now to go look for drivers and people in both series, then the engines will fire and the ethanol exhaust will be wafting through the cool Kentucky night air. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shane Hmeil Rules USAC Sprints at Winchester; 200th Blog Post Celebrated

On another beautiful Indiana summer day, Shane Hmeil showed his USAC sprint car challengers the fast way around the high banks for the second week running. This time, the sprinters were at fabled Winchester Speedway, a facility that first opened for racing in 1914 and has hosted legends of racing for decades. After what looked like an easy win at Salem last weekend, Shane put on a repeat performance after taking the lead and never looking back for the last two-thirds of the race. The car count was improved this week and the USAC sprint series ran a 40 lap feature today after a 50 lapper last weekend. This race honored the late Rich Vogler and his mother was on hand to present the winner's plaque following the USAC feature. Vintage cars of all types were also on hand along with the CRA stock car series and local front drive machines to fill out the day's dance card.
Similar to Salem, Winchester's half-mile is highly banked, and it takes some cahones to go fast there. Tracy Hines was fast qualifier but could not match Hmeil's pace in either their heat race or the feature. Damion Gardner's second place was impressive as he looked the best I've seen him on pavement. Just like at Salem, the racing was hard and furious behind Hmeil. For a young man who has battled the demon of substance abuse in his personal life, I am sure that Shane is grateful for his run of good fortune behind the wheel lately. Accepting his victory accolades in post-race interviews, he humbly suggested that he wasn't a very good driver but his crew keeps giving him great cars to drive. That sort of outlook will pay dividends with the guys who turn wrenches for little glory week in and week out. After wadding up a car when an axle broke at Salem last week, Levi Jones made a good run in a brand new car to take fourth ahead of Bobby East with whom he battled the entire 40 laps. Despite only starting 15 cars in the feature, USAC sprint cars still put on a great show for the sun drenched fans and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to American Motor Journal and do this work I love.
Since this is my 200th blog post, it seems appropriate that it centers on short track racing. As anyone who knows me will attest, I love all types of racing but short track open wheel racing is what first got my attention as a youngster. I have to thank my grandfather and namesake, the late Jay Shue, for that. Once I discovered photography in my 20's and put it together with racing, I was in trouble as I could go to a race every weekend and love every minute. I am not alone in that regard, as I ran into a friend and fellow photographer today who had been to dirt short track races the previous two nights and will be at Chicagoland next weekend for the Indycar event. While I am disappointed that I will not be able to shoot that race for the first time since 2006, watching Hmeil run away with today's race over Damion Gardner, Tracy Hines, Levi Jones and Bobby East elevated my heart rate just like always. The bonus today was I got to shoot the race with my brother and we've decided to make an annual race rendezvous somewhere like we did last year at Texas for the Indycars. Hopefully we can do that at Long Beach next April.
Perhaps I would have come by my love of motorsports naturally since my birthday falls close to the Indy 500 every year. But having my grandpa take me to the little short track at the County fairgrounds in Warsaw, Indiana when I was four or five years old really got me hooked. I remember walking through the paddock with him outside Turns 3 & 4 and he seemed to know everyone. I also recall hanging on the board fence watching the races since I wasn't tall enough to see over the fence on my own, feet on the lowest part of the fence, my chest pressed against the top board and arms hanging over just to be able to get dirt thrown in my face, feel the thunder of race cars a few feet away and hear the roar that still rings in my ears like it was yesterday. Grandpa was a self made man without a lot of education but he was fearless and as I learned years later, had been involved in racing that sprang from his association with barnstorming airplane pilots in the 1920's, including Eddie Rickenbacker who later owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even my mom, Grandpa's oldest child, tells stories of coming to Indy for the 500 in an old school bus with a washtub full of ice and beer back in the day when the life expectancy for racers was far shorter than it is today. Perhaps that is also why mom, now 75, still loves to come back for the 500 every year, and continues to tell me stories about Grandpa Jay. I had the chance to live and work with him the summer before I went off to college and have great memories of that time with him, my aunts and cousins, many of whom also got involved in racing: go karts, motocross, flat track or drag motorcycle racing.
So if anyone asks where I am on any given weekend, it's a safe bet that I'm either at a race, watching a race or making plans to go to my next race. The late Steve McQueen summed it up in the movie LeMans when he said, "Racing is life; everything else is just waiting." When I started my blog in early 2007, I had no idea where it would take me or who would end up reading it, so it is truly hard to believe that 200 posts have now come and gone.
It seems like I just got started yesterday. See you at the racetrack. And enjoy the slideshow from today's Winchester Speedway event!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sprint Car Racing at Salem High Banks

Shane Hmeil led flag to flag last Saturday night in the 50 lap USAC Sprint car feature at the rugged Salem Speedway half mile in southern Indiana. For a guy who has had his share of trouble, both in and out of a race car, he sure looked strong and was never seriously challenged for the lead. Tracy Hines fought his way to second place ahead of Bryan Clauson but was several car lengths back at the checkered flag. It was a steamy summer night for racing on the bumpy old asphalt for the Joe James/Pat O'Connor Memorial event, but the fans loved the USAC sprinters and were treated to a 30 lap feature from winged sprint cars as well, courtesy of the "Must See Racing" Extreme Sprint Car Series. It was my second trip to Salem this year and I plan to go back again next month when the ARCA series returns for its fall classic 200-lapper. Salem has a whole new look now with the new infield short track (complete with figure-8 crossover - all paved and race ready. The main track surface could sure use some new asphalt, but the bumps made for some spectacular showers of sparks as the sprinters bottomed out, especially going through Turn 3.
For this event, I traveled light to deal with the heat, and didn't even wear any earplugs during the race this time. I wanted to really hear the cars as well as feel them! I also got a chance to shoot from outside the wall at the exit of Turn 4 for the first time in all the years I've been going to Salem. Aside from getting showered with tire rubber and track debris, I absolutely loved the view and stayed there through the heat races for both series. The MSR cars were definitely faster on single lap times than the non-winged USAC sprinters, but Hmeil had the best line of the night in his winner's interview when he called the wings "a crutch". I prefer mine without wings, as the drivers are more visible and I think it takes more car control without all the downforce the wings provide. The winged guys definitely have more space to use for sponsor ads, and the MSR series has a lady racer named Sondi Eden who came home 5th in their feature not far behind winner Troy DeCaire. When I saw these cars run their demo at the April ARCA show, I put this race on my calendar as I was curious to see how they handled the high banks. The MSR bunch had the larger car count and raced clean and hard with no significant accidents, although I did hear some grumbling in the pit about a couple of driver's and the lines they were using. No rear view mirrors on sprint cars, ya know!
I'll be going to Winchester this weekend to see the USAC sprinters run again so I hope they can boost the entry list and put on another good show. See you there!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dario Continues Ganassi Roll at Mid Ohio

If you've ever been to the picturesque Mid Ohio Sports Car Course, I'm sure you can appreciate my disappointment at not being able to make it there this weekend to shoot the IZOD Indycar Series and American LeMans Series races. The track is a racing photographer's dream with rolling hills and combinations of fast and slow corners to make vantage points pletiful and interesting. I am happy however, that Dario Franchitti picked up his first Mid Ohio win and continued the Ganassi hot streak of late. For the weekend, Ganassi cars also won in the Sprint Cup at Watkins Glen with former Indy 500 winner Juan Pable Montoya at the wheel - that should salve some of his recent disappointments at the Brickyard and Pocono. On the same bill at the Glen, Ganassi's Telmex sponsored Rolex Grand Am sports car duo of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas also won. Adding these victories to Jamie Mac's Brickyard 400 win gives Chip some extra pocket change to play with, I'm sure. And the morale at the team shops must be sky high. Well done gentlemen.

Looks like the Target boys are going to give Will Power's Penske Indycar team a run for their money for the season championship after all, with the final road race of the season at Sonoma in two weeks followed by four oval races to wrap up 2010. I've held off writing lately to digest all that has happened in the IZOD Indycar Series over the last few weeks. The series announced its new car spec for 2012 in mid-July, with the tubs to be supplied by Dallara and other pieces and parts open to other manufacturers. Dallara's new plant will be located within shouting distance of Turn One at Indianapolis which should be a boon for teams and the Town of Speedway. Honda just announced it would build a twin turbo V6 for 2012 so they have thrown down the gauntlet for other engine suppliers that may follow, with a relatively open engine spec now on the table to encourage more diversity and competition among powerplants. While there has been some grumbling about a lack of definition in the rules, more will surely be revealed as the season winds down and manufacturers are able to nail down costs so the teams can budget for the future.

On the race track, the Canada swing was more like UFC as the competitors banged off each other and the walls with regularity on the streets of Toronto, and Helio went ballistic after a win in Edmonton was taken away over a blocking call on the final race restart. At first the blocking call seemed ludicrous, but I knew once Helio puts his hands on Indycar officials, he was in deep doo-doo. With the media coverage of Helio's meltdown also came an explanation of the current blocking rule, so it has become clear that Helio was in the wrong place on the race track at Edmonton and paid the price for not understanding the rules. Too bad for Helio, but not necessarily a bad thing for Indycars, as any publicity right now for the series could be regarded as good publicity.

This kind of lead up to Mid Ohio was one of the reasons I was so excited to get to the racetrack this past weekend, but unfortunately circumstances beyond my control intervened so I had to watch Versus while my photog friends were sweating it out over hill and dale for the weekend. I am still hopeful of making the Chicagoland and Kentucky oval races but I am not optimistic right now, as these are usually two of the best oval races all season. Three-wide racing for lap after lap at Chicagoland is not unusual and Kentucky had a photo finish last year after the series modified the rules to allow teams to use different aero bits to improve the show. That was certainly the result and I hope I can get back there to shoot both events and report from their media centers. It is rumored that next year's schedule is supposed to be announced soon, so as this year's championship winds down to another grand finale at Miami, it will be good to start planning for next year.

With another couple of blog posts, I will have completed 200 of these as a true labor of love - for writing, photography and racing. I always hope someone is reading these but I'm just a Hoosier with cameras and an opinion or ten, so if you see something that bugs you, then let me know. Just don't go all "Helio" on me the next time you see me at a racetrack! Wherever the ethanol fumes waft through the air and earplugs are essential, that's where I want to be, with my left eye on the viewfinder and the motordrives humming in my Canons.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Jamie McMurray Takes Brickyard - Completes Ganassi Trifecta

Jamie McMurray took the lead on the final restart at the 2010 Brickyard 400 and never looked back, completing the Ganassi Racing sweep of the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400. Kevin Harvick held off Greg Biffle for second place. McMurray's teammate Juan Pablo Montoya crashed out late after having the dominant car for most of the race. Mark Martin ran strong early and Tony Stewart made a late charge but it was a day for the Ganassi boys to show their stuff. It was also a day for track position as whoever got in front usually stayed there. The surprise of the day was the poor showing for Hendrick teammates Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon who both ran into trouble and were never serious contenders for the win.

The following slideshow captures some of the action from my Turn 3 vantage point, where the cars seemed to bounce through the corner, often running below the white line near the grass. It was really a shame that Montoya found the Turn 4 wall but he found himself back in the pack after his last pit stop when others, including McMurray, took only two tires while his team elected to go with four. That was pretty much the race, as Juan caromed off the wall and collected Dale Earnhardt Jr to thoroughly ruin the day for the Hendrick team. It was not nearly as hot and steamy today in Indy as the first two days of the Brickyard weekend, and the crwod was nowhere near what it had been for prior events here. For at least the second year in a row, the Indy 500 crowd was substantially larger than the Brickyard crowd. I would think that would concern NASCAR perhaps moreso than IMS. For the 17th year running on the world's most famous racetrack, NASCAR still put on a show for the diehards who braved the weather and stuck it out to the finish.

Brickyard 400 - It's Race Day in Indianapolis!

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is open for business and the 17th running of the Brickyard 400 is just hours away. Early morning rain showers have moved through and given way to a beautiful Indiana Sunday morning as race fans began filing into the Speedway after the 7 a.m. bomb went off. I got in just before 6 and have set up in the IMS media center for what promises to be a very interesting and exciting day. I have not mapped out my race day strategy entirely as yet and am waiting to see if there will be any new information revealed at the scheduled 10 a.m. photo meeting. This is the first year in all the years I've been covering the Brickyard that I was unable to attend any of the practice or qualifying sessions. With Juan Pablo Montoya on pole and Jimmy Johnson alongside in the front row, I see no reason at this point to vary from my pre-race predictions. I would add a darkhorse pick of Ryan Newman who starts fifth today.

I would like to congratulate former Indy 500 and F1 champ Jacques Villeneuve for making the race and kudos to Max Papis and JJ Yeley as well. of the 43 starters, I count 13 with major open wheel experience so if the track gets greasy in the heat today, these are guys who likely will be able to manage their tires and make progress to the front. I was especially happy to see Michael McDowell make the show as I continue to follow him after having done some work for him during his ARCA career a few years ago. I'm heading to the garage area now to see what's going on and will have more later.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Will Power Survives Toronto Indycar Fight: Hatfields & McCoys Come to Indy This Weekend

There's an old saying in racing that there are drivers who have hit the wall and drivers who are going to hit the wall. No one is immune from crashing, and this past weekend's Indycar race in Toronto say the wrecking in almost epidemic proportions, from Helio Castroneves running over Vitor Meira to Ryan Hunter-Reay's hip-check of Scott Dixon. Usually we expect the bottom half of the field to find concrete but lately in the Indycars, it seems to be just about everyone. Even the Tour de France seems to have been infected with crash-itis as lots of riders have gone done in all sorts of circumstances - even Lance Armstrong hit the pavement, and not just once, but three times in one stage. So now NASCAR comes to Indy for the Brickyard 400 and short track events at O'Reilly Raceway Park. What sort of weekend can we expect with this wrecking influenza sweeping up racers left and right?

More of the same would be my guess. From the post race fallout after Toronto, someone will probably have to knock Will Power out of the way as he will be the man to beat in Edmonton this weekend. He's leading the Indycar road race championship with three more road courses remaining on the schedule. In NASCAR, feuds aplenty exist with Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards going at it again this past weekend. The "have at it" attitude which has prevailed in NASCAR is likely to play out at Indy in the corners where the track has historically only offered one groove and passes will be hard to come by. As depicted in my lead photo, Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer found that out the hard way in Turn 3 a few years ago and plenty of other examples exist from the Brickyard. The Bodine brothers spinning each other out in the first Brickyard. Robbie Gordon and Greg Biffle doing a synchronized spin in Turn 1 a couple of years ago. Busch and Kevin Harvick going to the wall together in Turn 2 more recently. With Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and a number of other high profile drivers on long losing streaks, something will have to give and I would expect some desperate moves once the final pit stops have been made. Can you say "Green, white, checker" three times? How about "checkers or wreckers?" Someone will keep the fenders on and win Sunday but you know there will be controversy. Hopefully not like the tire debacle of two years ago and I'd really hate to see a pit lane "violation" take out a sure race winner like Juan Pablo Montoya last year.

It's hard not to be on alert for something highly unusual for the Brickyard however. There was lots of talk about a "fix" being in for Little E in the recent Daytona Nationwide race when he ran his daddy's Wrangler paint scheme and the #3. Junior's fans will be out in droves to see him kiss the bricks Sunday, but Hoosiers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart will be highly motivated and have legions of their own fans hoping they can take another victory at Indy. Jimmy Johnson has to be the favorite again this weekend; even though he hasn't been running great lately, he knows how to get to the front at the Speedway. I'd like to see Montoya run with the red mist this year and take back what was taken from him last year. His style is perfect for Indy and it's about time he won an oval race.

Let the feudin', fussin' and fightin' begin. Gentlemen, start those tow trucks. Better have the flatbed hauler ready just in case.