Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Power Repeats In Indycar on St. Pete Streets

Australian Will Power continued his resurgence in Indycars with a second consecutive win to start the Indy Racing League season, the first IRL driver since Sam Hornish to do so. And this from a man who lay broken in a California hospital bed just a few months ago. Power displayed uncanny race savvy on the drying track and let the race come to him, leading half the race laps in the process. No one could be happier that the monsoon conditions washed this event from Sunday to Monday morning. With a road course at Barber Motorsports Park up next, followed by another street circuit race at Long Beach, Power could enter the ovals at Kansas and Indy as the driver to beat for the IZOD Indycar championship.

In the second straight highly enterntaining IRL road race, in one respect it is a shame that the event had to be run Monday morning and got shifted to ESPN2 from its original ABC time slot. After a 76% jump in television ratings for the first race of the 2010 season, I am sure the Indycar brass are wondering what might have been, as St. Pete was highly competitive from fourth place on back with heavyweights like Dario Franchitti charging back after a lap one spin on the damp track to take fifth, and media darling Danica Patrick getting a 7th from her 21st starting position. In the middle was Simona DeSilvestra with another strong run before getting punted and Scott Dixon making uncharacteristic mistakes to DNF against the wall after leading the race's early laps. Graham Rahal had a fantastic run into 9th for Sarah Fisher's "little team that could" and Justin Wilson continued his early season success with Dreyer & Reinbold, chasing Power home to take second. Power's Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves trailed Wilson to the finish and gapped the drivers in fifth through tenth that swarmed around the St. Pete circuit snarling like a swarm of angry bees for position. Alex Tagliani had another impressive outing for his fledgling Fazzt team in sixth. It's clear that the first two races of 2010 have set the stage for perhaps one of the most hotly contested Indycar seasons in years.

Healthy car counts with 24 machines at each of the first two races bodes well for the series this year. The Indy 500 could have as many as 42 or 43 bonafide entries this year if reports around the circuit are accurate. John Andretti will likely run with cousin Michael's Andretti Autosport and Graham Rahal could be headed back to Newman Haas Lanigan, with Davey Hamilton, Paul Tracy, Townsend Bell, Tomas Scheckter, Jay Howard, AJ Foyt IV, Ed Carpenter, Ana Beatriz and Sebastien Saavedra said to be set for May's abbreviated schedule. Teams need to keep their equipment together over the next two raod races so that the Kansas tune-up for the 500 can help everyone get their oval legs under them heading to Indianapolis.

Pressure is on from sponsors for the IRL to deliver value this year, and no one knows that better than new IRL leader Randy Bernard. His appearance on SpeedTV's Wind Tunnel with Robin Miller last week was upbeat. I have surprised myself by beginning to warm up to Bernard filling this position, as he seems to be doing what all good leaders do: get good people involved and get their input. The formation of a committee to evaluate chassis options and provide recommendations is on the money, and recent reports indicate that 2011 may not be the drop dead date for a new car after all, especially if it means that teams have to spend more money when cash is already hard to come by. That realization is a good one in my book. Getting fan input is also a good idea, and I know I am not the only one who got the IRL survey via email about the chassis designs.

If the weather would just cooperate and fans could watch what the IRL is doing from week to week, there is an excellent opportunity to build significant momentum for May and the title chase. With more road courses than ovals on the schedule this season, one bad finish on either type of circuit could make or break a contender's opportunity. I for one can't wait to see what is next. While the IRL is at Barber, I will be at Salem for the ARCA race but rest assured I'll have something to say about both - thanks to my DISH Network DVR! See you at the track.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Indycar Comeback Stories Top Brazil Podium - Will Power Wins for Penske

A late mistake by teammate Ryan Briscoe opened the door for an improbable comeback win by Aussie Will Power in Sao Paolo, Brazil today in the inaugural street course race in Brazil's largest city. The anticipated Penske-Ganassi team duel never materialized, even though Dario Franchitti led a number of laps early on. Instead, the IRL storylines involved three drivers on the podium who missed most of the 2009 season due to crash injuries or financing woes.

Will Power was close to tears in his post race interview as he talked about his doubts he would be able to come back and be fast after his horrific accident last fall at Sonoma. He made a classic inside pass under braking with a handful of laps to go to relegate another comeback kid, Ryan Hunter-Reay to second place. IZOD got its money's worth today as Hunter-Reay was the class of the field most of the race but he lamented a lack of straight line speed after finishing second to the charging Power. Hunter-Reay jumped in and out of rides last season and struggled mightily with Vision Racing at Indy last year, only to see himself now becoming the face of IZOD in Indycars with Andretti Autosports. Brazilian Vitor Meira took third in front of his home crowd after missing most of last season with severe back injuries suffered in the 2009 Indy 500. Always a fan favorite, Vitor is one of the nicest guys on the circuit and his homage after the race to AJ Foyt Racing for keeping the seat warm for him until this year was very touching.

It was a very interesting weekend in Brazil with track surface problems caused by slippery concrete postponing qualifying to race morning and a deluge complete with hailstones swamping the race track during the race at about half distance. The day started with a scary first corner incident involving multiple cars, with drivers flying blind through the concrete dust and Mario Moraes ending up on top on Marco Andretti. Alex Tagliani and the new Fazzt race team were most impressive until he got punted by Dan Wheldon and ran into innocent bystander Tony Kanann spoiling his race. Go Daddy girl Danica Patrick had a spin in the rain and finished a lap down while the newest lady on the circuit, Simona di Silvestro, was quite impressive, leading laps in her first ever Indycar start. Of the newcomers, Brazilian Ana Beatriz showed that she belonged in this series with a smart rave to finish on the lead lap, ahead of all the other rookies and the more celebrated female drivers.

The biggest surprise for me was the botched strategy of the Target Ganassi team who kept Dario and Scott Dixon out on wet weather tires too long and once the track got dry, they were too far back to challenge for the podium. Dario was charging at the beginning and might have won had it not been for the team's tire strategy. Dixon got caught up int he first corner incident that was trigger by my darkhorse candidate Takuma Sato, so Dixie had a long fight to get back into the Top 10 as it was.

While I am sure that the Brazilian crowd would have been happier with Helio or TK winning this event, the track was very racy and mostly devoid of the point & squirt style of driving that seems to typify most street circuits. There were bonafide passing zones, high speeds on the long straightaways and not much bouncing off the concrete or other drivers once the concrete dust had settled from the first corner incident. Now the Indycar brigade packs up for the St. Petersburg Grand Prix in two weeks where former winner Graham Rahal will rejoin the fray, this time driving for Sarah Fisher Racing. I look forward to the next chapter in all these comeback stories. See you at the track!

Oh BTW. Is it May yet?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Indycar Season Finally Here: Penske- Ganassi Battle Expected

By now, all the teams and their gear are settled in for the Sao Paulo season opener this weekend. Unfortunately, I will be couch racing instead of shooting this event and I am looking forward to seeing how all the new combinations handle this inaugural street race. I'm sure a festival atmosphere will prevail as everyone knows Brazilians love their racing. With six (6) native sons or daughters racing in the IRL this weekend (four of whom list Sao Paulo as their hometown), their time will be in demand off the track as well.

Three time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, leader of Penske Racing, brings his race winning savvy and local heritage back home. Considering where his life was a year ago at this time, under the microscope of the Internal Revenue Service, Helio will no doubt be all smiles this weekend. Outside of Helio's Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe and Will Power, defending Indycar champ Dario Franchitti and teammate Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing will likely provide Helio's toughest competition. I think Helio's biggest personal challenge will be reigning in his natural exuberance since there is no margin for error on street courses like this one. A crash in qualifying could put any of these contenders at the back and passing is expected to difficult between so qualifying results will likely set the stage for the anticipated race winners.

I do expect there will be some surprise results this weekend as numerous new car/driver combinations have surfaced since last season. Of the 24 cars expected to start this weekend, roughly half involve drivers at new teams. A first time event such as this street race can also be expected to reward teams with the most experience with the Indycar street course setups, as they can go fast almost as soon as they unload and wheel out on the track. Street races are notorious for wall contact and the experienced drivers are not exempt, so someone like Justin Wilson, now with Dreyer & Reinbold, could sneak through to victory lane if the big boys run into concrete (or each other).

The ultimate darkhorse this weekend has to be Takuma Sato so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the IRL's close quarters racing and the relatively sluggish performance of Indycars compared to the F1 equipment with which he is more familiar. My personal favorite to do well would be Ana Beatriz as I have been impressed with her in Indy Lights equipment the last two years and the opportunity to do well in her hometown in her first IRL race will undoubtedly bring pressure, but I think she will be able to handle it even though she is not a likely podium candidate. Three women will start this race, two of them rookies, and Sarah Fisher is not among them. How will the Brazilian press treat Danica, Ana and Simona di Silvestro? I hope they all do well and it will be interesting to see the highly touted di Silvestro take on this circuit after a scintillating Atlantic series in 2009. I hope we see four women qualifying for Indy in May! No other high level racing series can boast of this kind of gender diversity.

Coverage will again be provided by Versus, and I feel badly for DirectTV customers who will not have access to the telecast. At least they can catch it on Indycar.com! With no Sprint Cup race this weekend and the Formula One opener also slated for Sunday, this should be an excellent weekend for the open wheelers to take center stage. Let's go racing!

Monday, March 1, 2010

IndyCar Season On The Brink: Barber Test Done - Brazil Next

Indycars have completed their only open test of the pre-season, conducted last week at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and are now aiming for the season opening race in Brazil in less than two weeks. The usual suspects led the Barber test but there were some surprising names near the top of the charts as well.
Team Penske sported new black and red livery and its three drivers led the way in combined testing results for the two-day run at Barber. Quick Aussie Will Power was followed by teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. It's good to see Power back up to speed after his horrific crash at Sonoma last season! Target Ganassi took Scott Dixon to fourth quick time but defending IRL champ Dario Franchitti's test was cut short after he found the barrier on the second test day. Justin Wilson surely buoyed the spirits of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing by slotting in fifth quick with former F1 Honda driver Takuma Sato in sixth for KV Racing Technology. That is good news for the Wilson and Sato teams as Justin brings a race winning heritage and Takuma brings funding from Honda. The teams head to Brazil next for the first race of the season March 14th.

The Brazil race should be a very interesting event and could serve as a springboard for the IRL in popularity this year. I have been an IRL supporter from the beginning but I have the sense that this year is critical for the Indy Racing League. Here's a few reasons why I think so:

New Leadership. The end of the Tony George era has been well documented and now that Jeffrey Belskus runs the Speedway and Randy Bernard is the IRL kingpin, how will that play out this year? First impressions are meaningful and with the former-PBR founder & CEO taking on the IRL, his first day on the job is March 1st so what will he be able to bring to the table? My concern would be that if he doesn't make a splash immediately, his tenure may be limited like so many other IRL leaders in the past. With the NASCAR juggernaut seemingly regaining its momentum early this season, this is a crucial season for the IRL and results will need to come quickly and be evident to everyone involved: teams, sponsors and fans alike. If Belskus keeps the financial screws tightened up so much that the Speedway and the IRL can't effectively market themselves, then sayonara to this leadership group and hello precipice.

New events. The first Indycar race in Brazil will now start the season on the international stage. The bad news is the Formula One opener is the same day. Diehards may watch both (like I will) but newcomers may still be confused about the differences between the series. I can almost hear them now: "Those cars all look alike. Don't the grand prix cars always run on road courses?" Differentiation is going to be the key to grab new fans for the IRL so I hope Versus and the IRL are buying ad time associated with Speed's F1 coverage and every NASCAR telecast where Danica will race. The Barber race in April is also a new venue and helps tip the scales in favor of road racing for 2010. If these events can showcase some good racing and not be follow-the-leader parades, then perhaps they can develop some history and staying power for the IRL. If they are just quick paydays and go by the wayside when current promotion contracts expire, then I don't think the IRL has gained much of anything. How many fans from Brazil are going to travel to another Indycar race this season? Or how many from Alabama, for that matter?

Versus. This is the second season of the Versus/ABC television package and unfortunately, DirectTV subscribers still cannot see the IRL events on Versus. Danica even went so far recently as to suggest that the IRL needs to be on ESPN so viewers can get their racing fix with the IRL in the mix. Searching for Versus or paying for upper tier cable or satellite channel feeds cannot be a good thing for the IRL long term. Comcast needs to get its act together and push the DirectTV issue to a solution and get Versus in the standard packages for cable and satellite.

New chassis spec for 2012. From what I can gather, the Delta Wing concept just won't fly. Even Danica, the IRL's most recognizable personality, has made comments that aren't exactly flattering. I've beat this drum here before so it goes without saying that the next chassis spec could make or break the IRL.

Abbreviated Indy 500 schedule. Sure the teams and IMS will save a lot of money but will this really result in greater fan interest during the lone practice week? With only two days for qualifying, rain could be the biggest nemesis for Indy this year and the disappointing crowds at the last few pole days could vanish altogether if qualifying gets washed out to the "next available day" when everyone is back at work. Obviously the television coverage will suffer as well with programming to fill rain delay time never as interesting as pole or bump day qualifying drama. If time for the teams gets squeezed even further, then the pressure to get in the race builds and you can bet there will be drivers who find the fence in desperation rather than setting quick lap times.

Danica. ESPN2 seems to have become the Danica channel lately since she is running the Nationwide Series. The IRL people have got to get in the mix and play off of that publicity. They need to have an IRL show car at every stock car race Danica runs, offer ticket promos, race weekend package contests and other goodies to get the stock car nation out to see the IRL product on race weekends. GoDaddy can certainly do more than just flashing Danica's face on the screen or in the email marketing. Show both cars - Indy and stock - in every ad. Get Mark Martin on board to help since he has Go Daddy money for his Sprint Cup car.

Penske & Ganassi Dominance. Can anyone else step up and challenge either of these teams? Andretti Autosport has the most to gain with Michael Andretti as the sole owner now, but they also have the most to lose, and Danica outran her more seasoned teammates in 2009 so it will be interesting to see how Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti fare as the season goes on. It's good to see Ryan Hunter-Reay get rewarded with a seat for a limited schedule with Andretti, although with IZOD behind him and the series, I would think more could be done for him. And IZOD, will you please update that commercial? It is just so tired. Finally, what will become of Newman Haas-Lanigan? Hideki Mutoh took his Formula Dream money to NH-L and will run the #06 car but I don't see him as a front runner. And why on earth can't Graham Rahal get some backing for the #02 NH-L car? Losing Rahal from the series makes absolutely no sense, especially when the IRL is already short on American talent behind the wheel.

Fans. This is the most important element for the Indy Racing League this year. Will fans come out to the races and find the IRL on television? I was a race fan long before I became a motorsports photographer, so I am anxious to see what kind of crowds come out to places like Chicagoland and Kansas for comparison to the NASCAR craowds at the same venues. If the Indianapolis 500 has a larger crowd than the Brickyard again this year, then the IRL may have turned the corner with fans. And if wheel to wheel photo finishes, and a season championship fight among mulitple drivers at the Miami Homestead finale once again, don't get your racing juices flowing, then I don't know what will.
This is not your father's Indycar series; it never will be again. A series with so much promise and potential is at the axis of change in 2010 and this season on the brink will go a long way towards determining whether change means growth or decline. My belief is that growth is coming for the most competitive high speed series in the world of motorsports. I'll be at the tracks as often as possible. How about you?