Thursday, April 29, 2010

Racin' This 'n That: It's Almost May & That Means Indianapolis

Lots of people are talking about Kevin Harvick winning the NASCAR lottery at Talladega last weekend, but for my money, the best show was Friday's ARCA race won by star-in-the-making Dakoda Armstrong (pictured). With a healthy assist from ARCA regular Patrick Sheltra on the last lap, this 18 year old Hoosier from New Castle pulled off an outstanding pass to snag his first win at 'Dega. His Victory Lane celebration looked like the real deal and this kid is going places. He's already got an entourage of sorts, judging from the way fans hooted for him during introductions at Salem a couple of weeks ago. With his rock star looks and a bundle of talent, he seems destined for greater things in racing. With the young guns from ARCA showing well in the other Talladega events (see Steve Arpin, Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier, et al for more on that), perhaps you can understand why I enjoy covering the ARCA series so much. These guys are going places and just need seat time to show their stuff. Well done gentlemen.

While the stock car series are heading for short tracks, the IZOD Indycars are about to attack the first oval race of the season at Kansas Speedway. In another sure sign of spring for IRL fans, that can only mean the Indy 500 is not far off and it is almost May. With a little more than two weeks before the Speedway opens for practice, this weekend's Kansas race will be an opportunity to see what everyone has for their oval track packages. And the news lately has been that Penske has more than everyone else and isn't sharing! What a surprise! Everything from ride height control to front suspension tweaks are rumored to have been on their cars for quite some time. I'm sure the Target Ganassi boys have a few tricks up their sleeves for Penske this weekend and I wish I could be there. Maybe next year...

The 500 entry list is looking quite healthy this year with close to 80 cars ready to roll for about 40 drivers. One idea that new IRL boss Randy Bernard has floated this week involves offering additional prizes and recognition for oval and street/road course "champions" in the future. This is not exactly a new idea as I wrote about that very concept here and on google's usenet Indycar group several years ago. I've often wondered what would have happened if Tony George had done something similar for the initial IRL Indy 500 in 1996 instead of protecting 25 spots for IRL regulars. Racers need cash and while we will never know what might have happened if TG had offered more cha-ching for Indy back then, I will bet the current teams will be quite happy for the extra financial motivation if it happens. I'm not so sure they are going to be as happy about the new Fast 9 Pole Day format at Indy, but it should be a great show for the fans and television.

Speaking of New Castle, one of the best karting facilities around is located there just off of I-70. It is owned by former IRL driver Mark Dismore and the racing there is entertaining and highly competitive. They also offer fast rental karts so if you're coming to Indy this May, it's only about 30 minutes east of town so get out there and fill that need for speed. One of the great things about living here in the Indianapolis area is proximity to grassroots tracks like New Castle and Whiteland Raceway. But the best part is seeing people in racing. Just this week, I ran into Scott Dixon's father at the Marsh grocery in Zionsville. I saw Tim Cindric at the NCAA Final Four earlier this month. Where else do you have a chance to rub elbows with open wheel racing's personalities? In the past, I've run into Vitor Meira at Target, seen Tiago Monteiro jogging on the Monon trail, talked to Mike Conway and Tomas Sheckter at a Colts game, and had the opportunity to play basketball against and talk racing with AJ Foyt IV at La Fitness.

On top of Indy boasting the greatest race course in the world, lots of other tracks are close by. Short tracks like Eldora, Winchester and Salem are within a couple hours easy drive. Chicagoland Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Mid Ohio Sports Car Course and Michigan International are all with four hours by interstate. And Indiana is peppered with great dirt tracks from Lawrenceburg and Steve Kinser's home track in Bloomington down south to the Terre Haute "Action Track" out west and Gas City in the northeast. If you can't find some racing to enjoy in the Hoosier state, whether as a fan or participant, then you really aren't trying very hard, especially in May, where Anderson Speedway lines up 33 sprinters to run 500 laps on its quarter-mile high banks and O'Reilly Raceway Park runs midgets the night before the 500. And no, I'm not shilling for the chamber of commerce. To paraphrase a local tv ad for another product: "I don't want to sell tickets; I just love to go racing..."

See you at the track soon - but not soon enough.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hunter-Reay Upsets Penske Juggernaut at Long Beach

The Indy Racing League continues to come up with "feel good" stories in 2010 as Ryan Hunter-Reay takes advantage of Will Power's gearbox glitch to snatch the Long Beach Grand Prix victory out of the Penske team's grasp. To top it off, RHR dedicated the win to his his recently deceased mother who passed away over the winter from cancer. On the weekend in Indianapolis where the Komen Race For The Cure event was held, I found this dedication especially poignant for a man who struggled mightily at Indy last year just to make the 500 for Vision, and who entered this season as an afterthought driver for Andretti Autosports apparently just because he had IZOD money. Anyone who has followed the IRL knows how quick RHR can be in the right equipment and now he's backed up his earlier strong road course finishes this year for Andretti with a front row starting spot and an opportunistic win in the most historic street circuit in America for open wheel racing.

It was a very unusual Long Beach event with some of the longest green flag running in memory and from the outset, it looked like the other great "feel good" story of the season was going to continue unabated for Will Power. I love the fact that these two drivers are showing the way, as even though Helio has one win to his credit, Power has been the dominant Penske driver so far this season. Who could have imagined before the season began that Hunter-Reay would upstage his Andretti teammates and now be in third in the season standings at this point? His nearest Andretti teammate is Tony Kanaan in ninth and he is even ahead of the powerhouse Target duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

Speaking of Target Ganassi Racing, where have these guys been so far this season? Dixon found concrete at St. Petersburg but bounced back at Barber while Dario's team made a bad tire call at Brazil and his only TV time at Long Beach was when he was getting passed for 10th place by Mike Conway so these guys have been mysteriously erratic during this first quarter of the season where road racing has been featured. Now four oval tracks follow so it will be interesting to see how Dario and Dixie respond, with Kansas, Indy, Texas and Iowa up next to get the series just about halfway through this season. An early points lead like Will Power has today could easily evaporate with a single crash or DNF on the ovals, but you can bet that the Chipster will be kicking butt and taking names over the next eight weeks if the Target boys don't get their act together.

The other "feel good" story I love is Justin Wilson. I felt bad for him after Pink Lloyd slammed the door on him while Wilson was chasing Hunter-Reay yesterday, but if he had been a little more patient, Justin could easily have passed Alex at the end of the next straightaway. Evenso, Wilson finds himself fourth in the season standings for longtime IRL entrant Dreyer & Reinbold which is finally seeing some results worthy of their dedication, thanks to Wilson's obvious talent at the controls. He will win at least a race or two before this season is over and you can bet he will learn from this Long Beach incident. He took Dale Coyne's oft-maligned team to the promised land of victory lane last year and I'm sure he can do it again with D&R. Wilson is another guy who has had to bounce around Indycars since his champ car days, going from Newman Haas Lanigan as Graham Rahal's teammate two years ago in the first year of the IRL-Champ Car unification, to where he is now: a real threat on any road course. Let's hope Larry Curry can pull a rabbit out of the hat for Justin on the ovals this year and keep him up there as a championship contender.

Speaking of Rahal, one more "feel good" story is needed for May: he needs to land a ride for the rest of the season. Watching Long Beach yesterday on Versus, I had remarked to a friend that Graham's job for Sarah Fisher Racing was to bring the car home in one piece, as he was mired with the backmarkers and didn't seem to be making any headway. Not five minutes later, Graham gets taken out in a silly incident by Mario Romancini who "missed his braking marks" going into Turn 1 and stuffed Sarah's pretty yellow car into the tire barrier. Graham was none too happy as you can imagine and it was encouraging to hear him say they thought the tub might have been cracked sometime before the race since none of the adjustments they threw at the car the whole weekend made a lick of difference. If he can land somewhere in a strong team, he will be highly motivated to show well at Indy and the rest of the season.

Now it is on to Kansas and the teams have to change over to oval track trim for the next two months - away with the big nose wings and on with the stagger! Now it's time to go fast, turn left and take no prisoners. With a new Pole Day format for the Top 9 at Indy competing for extra points and cash, it should be a sight to behold. I can't wait to get my first whiff of ethanol for the season. See you in Turn One or Gasoline Alley in a few weeks.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Arpin Takes Salem ARCA Slugfest

Steve Arpin outlasted the field and was nearly the last man standing in the ARCA Kentuckiana Ford Dealers 200 at Salem Speedway today. Craig Goss and ARCA points leader Justin Marks chased Arpin to the checkered flag in a hard fought battle. The win catapulted Arpin into a tie in season points with Marks as the series now heads for an inaugural run at Texas Motor Speedway. Last September's ARCA Salem winner Patrick Sheltra took fourth ahead of Tom Hessert.

Arpin's Venturini Motorsports team could hardly have been more excited about taking the Salem victory. It was Arpin's first career win in ARCA and was marked by some hard driving through numerous restarts in the last fourth of the event due to a rash of crashes suffered by his competitors. On a beautiful spring day in southern Indiana which began with another teen sensation on the pole, 16 year old Max Gresham, Arpin was the class of the field late in the race and bested Craig Goess who also got his best career finish. Gresham ended up sixth ahead of another young gun, Dakoda Armstrong.

As is often the case at bumpy and aging Salem, lots of cars found the unforgiving walls or each other, some on several occasions. Joey Coulter started and ran strong until a couple of late wall contacts ruined his day. Frank Kimmel was a lap down at one point but fought back and was his usual racy self at Salem to snag an eighth place finish. Lady racer Alli Owens looked strong in taking ninth ahead of Ron Cox. My hard luck competitor for the day was the #1 of Nick Igdalsky as every corner on his machine was bent or broken but he kept coming back on the track to record laps. The top 10 somehow managed to stay on the lead lap through 11 caution periods. The race was highly entertaining for the large and enthusiastic crowd and the Salem ownership must be happy with the way the day turned out. It was by far the largest crowd I have seen in years for the spring ARCA race and the chamber of commerce weather surely had a lot to do with the turnout.

ARCA has run at Salem more than any other track in series history and while the track surface has certainly seen better days, Salem Speedway's best days may lie ahead. A new small oval that can also be used for figure-8 features is laid out in stone in the infield, soon to be paved. And a demo run by winged sprinters prior to the ARCA feature surely got the fans excited as another fast and furious event is being added to the Salem calendar. The Kimmel Street Stocks ran a clean and competitive feature before ARCA took the stage, so there was plenty of eye candy for the diehard southern Indiana race fans to ogle. It was my first race to shoot for the season, and it was great to shake the rust off in a place that has become a second home race track for me after Indianapolis. I can't wait to see ARCA again this summer and look forward to seeing the up and coming stars of stock car racing hit the high banks at Salem in the fall. By then, the series title will be winding down and today's young stars will be more seasoned, although it is hard to argue with their race craft after a day like today, where hotshoes Gresham, Armstrong and last year's pole winner Chris Buescher were all highly competitive against much more experienced drivers. That is the great thing about ARCA that I have come to appreciate so much: come one, come all, young and old. Strap in and hang on, the show is about to start!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Go Dawgs!

This blog post will depart from my normal subjects in honor of an amazing story that all the media has adopted: the Butler Bulldogs are 40 minutes and one win away from being crowned NCAA Men's basketball champions. Never in my life have I dreamt that I could write those words, and I'm sure for many of the Butler faithful, the feeling is mutual. Having had the opportunity to work at Lucas Oil Stadium for the games yesterday, I was blessed with the chance to see how Butler students reacted once the game was over. While I did not see much of the game action because of my job duties in gate security, I couldn't help but feel a personal connection to Butler and its storied basketball program. And while I don't know any of the team's current players or coaches personally, that feeling of connection to the Bulldogs has never been stronger. Here's my connection, and please bear with me as I have been overcome with an urge to write about a topic that, like motorsports, has been a staple and life long passion of mine: basketball.

As it says in my blog bio, I am "just a Hoosier." By the time my family moved to the Butler Tarkington neighborhood in June 1968, I was long since overcome with basketball fever. Watching the high school kids play on a dirt court at a rim nailed to a tree in Logansport; going to watch the Berries play mighty Anderson in the sold-out Wigwam; playing on a snow covered hoop with chain nets at the end of a cul-de-sac in Kokomo; going to the gym with my Dad before I was in kindergarten in Bourbon; bringing home the Ring-A-Bell hoop from the dime store and nailing it to the tree in our driveway; watching the Pacers play the New Jersey Americans at Kokomo High School the first year of the ABA and sitting in the front row for a professional basketball game. I still have my "Play Better Basketball with Oscar Robertson" book with the Big O on the cover in his Cincinnati Royals uniform. Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was play basketball.

Moving to Indianapolis a block away from Hinkle Fieldhouse took my basketball fever to an insane new level. Tony Hinkle was the Butler coach then, and the Indiana High School sectionals, regionals, semi-states and state finals were played there through 1971. We charged fans to park their cars in our driveway for the finals in an organized effort of neighborhood kids, then we would watch the games on Channel 6 with Tom Carnegie at the mike, hit Hamaker's Pharmacy and load up on candy and pop before coming back to shoot hoops in our gravel driveway until it was time for the championship game that night.

Attending games of any sort at Hinkle has always held a special place in my life, and we used to sneak into Butler games whenever we could pool a couple dollars for one ticket to send someone in to pop the doors by one of the ramps so the rest of use could run in. We never got caught and it was rare that we couldn't get in. Butler's teams were not all that great back then but they had some incredible players with local connections who were always accessible to me as a player. I used to go into Hinkle all the time, just to see if anyone was playing on the raised court, often getting the opportunity to shag balls for Billy Shepherd. Or I'd sneak a couple of jump shots in before the old security guard with his little dog would chase me out. Or weasel my way into the girls gym to play against the college kid by telling security that my Dad was a professor at Butler. In the dead of winter or during Christmas break, my brother and I or another friend would go to Hinkle and check every outside door to see if any had been left ajar, and many times found ourselves playing there with the whole place to ourselves. All through high school, I'd work out there and run steps or the ramps and play games in my head, imagining myself competing on the big court down below.

If there is a basketball heaven on earth, then Hinkle Fieldhouse is it. Long before the movie Hoosiers came out, I was one of those kids whose only dream was to play in the "big game" there. Even as many times as I have seen that movie, I still get goosebumps and weepy when the Huskers walk up the ramp from the locker room to the playing area. I have made that walk too and the memories are etched in my mind. Playing in front of over 11,000 people in the sectional final my senior year at Shortridge was a surreal experience, and while I was never recruited by Butler, I cannot escape the allegiance I feel to its program and Hinkle Fieldhouse. It has been awesome to watch all the national coverage this week and hear about media from everywhere wanting to make the trip to the historic old barn on West 49th Street. As a high school player and neighborhood kid in the early '70's, I knew and played with/against lots of Butler guys there. Dave Speckman, a fellow Blue Devil four years my senior, took me under his wing and got me in games anytime I showed up. Darryl Mason, Billy Shepherd, Marty Monserez, Clarence Crane and one of my high school teammates Wayne Burris were Bulldogs I looked up to and tried to emulate. Tony Hinkle was always there at Butler games in the front row after he retired and the coach who succeeded him, George Theofanis, had been coach at Shortridge before my high school days. Then years later, Todd Lickliter, who I played against in high school in the sectionals at Hinkle, became the Bulldogs' coach and created another attachment for me to the place where I felt like an alum despite never having been inside a Butler classroom.

A basketball season does not pass without attending at least one game at Hinkle and the photos I shot at their game against Loyola this season are going to be mementos for the ages. Now to top it all off, Butler has to play Duke for the National Championship. I have a personal connection to Duke as well, as my University of Chicago team played at Cameron Indoor Stadium my junior year and although our little Division III program got crushed by the Duke team that was national runnerup to Kentucky and featured Mike Gminksi, Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard and Jim Spanarkel, the Duke wristband I found in the locker room before that game is a cherished artifact of my college playing days and another reminder of those boyhood dreams of being a basketball player.

After Butler beats Duke tomorrow night 67-66, all of the Butler faithful can rejoice once more for the little school that could. Wouldn't Mr. Hinkle be proud? Go Dawgs!