Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dario Franchitti Runs Away With 2nd Indy 500 Win

On what was reported to be the hottest race day ever for an Indianapolis 500, Dario Franchitti thoroughly dominated his IZOD Indycar Series competition today to win his second 500 in his last three tries. In the process he helped team owner Chip Ganassi become the first car owner ever to win Indy and the Daytona 500 in the same year. The race began and ended with crashes and Dario took the lead on the first lap and overcome the fuel mileage concerns of most of the field to win under caution following Mike Conway's frightening Turn 3 crash with Ryan Hunter-Reay on the last lap. Conway suffered a broken leg and it is a miracle that no one in the stands was hurt by the debris cloud thrown off when Conway got airborne and hit the fence above the SAFER barrier going backwards at 200 mph. My photos of the crash are included in the slideshow with this blog post and initial concerns were that he had actually gone under the grandstands after tearing through thick steel cables which split the car in two. Thankfully, the outcome was nowhere near as bad for Conway as it could have been.

The race was marked by several accidents likely due to the hot and slippery conditions, but Dario was unaffected by any of it. He clearly had the fastest car all race long and as others had to peel off for late fuel stops, he moved back into his dominating position at the point. The Dreyer & Reinbold team had been having a very good day prior to Conway's crash, as he led several laps along with Thomas Scheckter and Justin Wilson at various times. Oddly enough it was the veterans making the mistakes today and not rookies as one might have expected. Team Penske had the worst of it. Ryan Briscoe found the wall. Will Power left his pit with the fueling rig still attached. Race favorite Helio Castroneves stalled leaving the pits. Davey Hamilton, Bruno Junqeira, John Andretti and Raffa Matos all hit the wall. Dario's teammate Scott Dixon had a problem in the pits and was never a serious challenger for the race win. The only rookie who got into trouble was Sebastion Saavedra who spun in Turn 1 into the barrier (again) and put Bryan Herta's "Two Men and a Truck" race team out for good. Except for Sarah Fisher, who could never get a grip on the race track and dropped out early, the ladies fared well today. Simona de Silvestro ran strong all day (my rookie of the year favorite) and Ana Beatriz stayed out of trouble until becoming an innocent victim of Conway's wreck. Danica was racy while fighting in mid pack after being booed in driver introductions for her Pole Day comment that her poor qualifying run "Was not my fault." Indy 500 crowds don't forget.

Danica's teammates were the stars of the show for Andretti Autosport. Tony Kanaan picked up seven spots (flying around the outside line) in the first lap and charged all the way to second at one point to the delight of the sweltering crowd. Marco Andretti was a frontrunner all day and took third while Hunter-Reay had some good moments too before Conway used him for a launching ramp at the end. Indy-only teammates at Panther also had good days as my darkhorse candidate Dan Wheldon finished second for the second straight year and Ed Carpenter maintained a Top 10 spot most of the afternoon. Perhaps the happiest people other than Dario's bunch were Alex Lloyd and Sam Schmidt, as Alex was very aggressive on restarts and parlayed that into an excellent 4th place finish.

It was quite a day at the old Brickyard today, and my vantage point in Turn 3 offered loads of side by side action as cars slipped up into the gray on several occasions to be passed by others who were able to hug the white line. And my predicted winner, Dario Franchitti, made everyone else eat his ethanol exhaust virtually the entire race, leading more laps in one win than any other 500 winner in history. Now the big track in little Speedway, Indiana, goes quiet until NASCAR comes to town at the end of July and we have to wait another year to see what surprises she will unveil in 2011 which will be 100 years since the first 500 was run. Jack Nicholson waving the green flag and kissing the bricks, Mark Walberg in the two-seater with Michael Andretti at the wheel, more women racers than ever before, and a dominant race by Scotsman Dario Franchitti will be hard to top next year. And Helio will have to wait until then to try and collect his 4th Indy 500 win, while Dario will return as defending 500 Champ for the first time, having left for stock cars after his 2007 win in the rain. The IZOD Indycars now move to Texas for a night race this Saturday and I wish I could go again this year. Pretty soon, you'll hear the same old question from me: is it May yet? I can hardly wait.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Indy 500: The Night Before

With less than 24 hours before the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500, nearly all the pagentry is over with the 500 Festival Parade this afternoon and the Snake Pit Ball this evening. Teams have completed their final preparations and final strategies are being fine tuned. By tomorrow evening, the driver's face will be know which will be added to this year's spot on the Borg Warner trophy. I have watched thousands of laps this month and been close enough to the drivers to overhear conversations with crew chiefs, read their facial expressions and body language, and have a sense for their level of confidence as individuals and teams. Tomorrow they race!
My picks for this year's race are:
Winner: Dario Franchitti. While Helio is the odds-on favorite, Dario looks ready to win another one, and this one at full distance unlike 2007 which was rain-shortened.
Darkhorse: Dan Wheldon. He was my pick last year and finsihed second on strategy and the Panther team has rebounded from a practice crash and he has looked relaxed and confident.
Sentimental Pick: Ryan Hunter-Reay. He is the face of IZOD and may need to win to keep racing this season beyond Texas next weekend. How could IZOD not keep him running if he wins?
Rookie of the Year: Simona de Silvestro. I saw her moake moves in Carb Day yesterday that veterans would be proud of and I think she will outshine the other rookies in the Class of 2010.
Driver to Watch: Tony Kanaan from 33rd. It goes wthout saying that the Brazilian's internal fire will be buring hot and he will pass lots of cars early. He probably can't win from last place, but who knows? Scott Goodyear almost did it in 1992.
Yesterday's Carb Day crowd was very encouraging and the campers were already well ensconced along Crawfordsville Road and in the Coke Fields. Today the drivers will try to quiet the butterfiles and get some rest to take on the elements, the race track and their fellow drivers tomorrow. This will probably be my last blog post before the race as I am going to O'Reilly Raceway Park tonight for the Star Mazda dn USAC midget races. What's a few more hundred laps this weekend anyway. Then Sunday, it's back to my spot in Turn 3 at the Speedway, watching, waiting, watching and shooting. Stop on by! Go Dario!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Target Rules Indy Carb Day - Cunningham Wins Lights Race

On a hot and beautiful spring day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Target Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon ruled the roost in final Carburetion Day practice, both able to run laps in excess of 225 in race trim. Penske duo Will Power followed in third with Helio in fifth sandwiching the most impressive run of the day by Bruno Junquiera in fourth. All 33 teams got on track and Tony Kanaan was back in his original car and will start shotgun on the field Sunday. From my vantage point in Turn 3, it was a clean final hour of practice under the midday sun and bodes well for a fast race Sunday as numerous drivers were able to run over 220 in race trim. I will have a full field rundown before Sunday with my annual predication for the winner.

Wade Cunningham won the highly entertaining Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race, taking his third win at Indianapolis in the process. Surprise pole winner Pippa Mann was taken out by a spinning Jeff Simmons on Lap 2 in the first turn which opened the door for some great wheel to wheel battles among the top 5 Lights drivers. The remainder of the race was clean and green but Cunningham had to hold off several stout challenges to take the win.

The wrapup for the day was provided by that little band from Texas, ZZ Top. A huge crowd gathered in the infield road course section for the show by these rock legends amid sweltering conditions at the 3:30 concert time. I will be back with much more as the weekend progresses and hope that everyone got home safely from the Speedway today. The heat took its toll on many of the partiers that we saw throughout the day and Sunday promises more of the same conditions for the 500. It sure looked like everyone had a good time: I know we did and the best is yet to come in less that 48 hours. Back again soon!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eyes of the Indy 500

It has been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. If that is true, then what do we see when we look into the eyes of competitors at the Indy 500? Intensity is one characteristic shared by all drivers and looking in their eyes tells a story for each one. These eyes belong to AJ Foyt, who while he has not been a driver for a number of years, no one would argue that he is any less intense as a car owner. Just ask AJ Foyt IV! He doesn't appear to be getting a lot of sleep and with the battle for sponsorships and trying to get two cars into the 500, I can imagine sleep may be hard to come by.

In the traditional stick & ball sports, they say that the legs are the first to go. With drivers, that doesn't much matter as they will get behind the wheel with broken bones in their legs, feet, back and arms if they still can grip the steering wheel. But if their eyes go, that's another deal entirely, since it all starts there. Hand-eye coordination is of paramount importance for drivers so when the brain can no longer process the signals from the eyes as quickly as in their youth, that's when drivers know the gig is about up. For Indycar drivers blasting through a blind corner at over a football field per second, quick reactions mean everything: their lives depend on them.

I have wanted to do a photo feature on driver's eyes for quite some time, and thanks to the access I have shooting for American Motor Journal, I have made a conscious effort to get eye contact with drivers this May whenever possible. That in itself can be a challenge since so often the first thing they do upon exiting their cars (after putting on a sponsor's hat) is put on the big Hollywood sunglasses. Every time I see inside a driver's helmet or make eye contact through the lens on pit road, I wonder how things must look from their vantage point. I have heard many say that everything slows down and that speed is relative once you get used to it. The "getting used to it" at 220+ mph is what amazes me! These are men and women with special skills and a fearlessness that is almost unfathomable. Why else would they strap themselves in with a broken back, like Buddy Lazier did to with the 1996 Indy 500, and then risk everything every corner of every lap just to finish first? Vitor Meira and Will Power are the latest examples of drivers who overcame serious crash injuries to race again, and you can see in their eyes that nothing else matters but going fast to get to the checkers ahead of everyone else. God bless them all this weekend and as is often heard in the prayers before a race begins - "godspeed."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Indy 500 Field is Full: Bump Day Drama To The End

If Paul Tracy has too many more days like today at Indy, he won't have any hair left at all, as he's on the outside looking in after experiencing a miserable Bump Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Setting aside a time that would have been quick enough to make the show, PT was left in the qualifying line at 6:00 p.m. with Jay Howard on the track making one last ditch attempt to get a second Sarah Fisher Racing car in the show. Howard was unsuccessful and Sarah was in tears afterwards. Such is life at 225 mph at Indy. Easily the luckiest person at IMS today was 19-year old Sebastion Saavedra who made a rookie mistake with a little over an hour to go in qualifications and smacked the SAFER barrier in Turn 1 while seeking more speed in case he got bumped off the bubble. He ended up making the 500 with a wrecked car after all the bumping was done.

The day's final events set up early as the field was filled by 1 p.m. and the track opened for an extensive green light practice period where teams that qualified Saturday on Pole Day ran in bunches to work on race day setups. On a day when the weather was more like August than May, the track temperature soared from 84 at noon to 124 just a few hours later, and the changing conditions proved to be the undoing of several drivers who could no longer find speed. Even Tracy's bravado was no match for the track today and despite kicking up the marbles and almost brushing the wall on his last qualifying run, he could not get it done. Milka Duno is also on the outside looking in, as she never did seem to find the groove in Turn 3 where I shot today, and she had a major moment of her own on the south end of the track during one of her qualifying runs. After reportedly having "words" with Grandpa AJ earlier in the day, Foyt IV never hit the track as Jacques Lazier was put in the seat to try to qualify a second Foyt car after Vitor Meira got the 14 machine in handily shortly after noon. Jacques worked hard all day and with relatively few laps, he got sideways in front of us and had to wave off one final attempt to make the race. Bruno Junqueira put a second FAZZT team car in the show with virtually no track time and Mario Romancini gave up a precarious speed to run faster late in the day and safely get in the field of 33. Alex Lloyd made a workmanlike run to get in and Takuma Sato spent most of the day in the garage before making a late run to get in and come back from his Pole Day accident.

The happiest person at the Track had to be Tony Kanaan today after crashing again in the morning practice session in almost the same place as he did Saturday. Contrast TK's emotional interview with Sarah Fisher's tearful reactions after the 6:00 gun went off and the extremes of making the Indy 500 become personal for anyone who loves all that is Indy. It never ceases to amaze me how the practice and qualifying unfolds, where at the beginning of practice everyone thinks they have loads of time to "sort out" their cars and get up to speed. This year especially, weather was a major factor, reducing track time and pushinh small teams Like Sarah's to their limits only to come up short. Now the real waiting begins, as the 500 is just seven days away and the race we wait for all year will be over before you know it. I'll be back with other photo features this week as I have more time to edit the few thousand images I've shot this week, and then we go racing in earnest for a shot at making history.

Got milk?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

All Hail Helio! Wins Second Straight Indy 500 Pole Position

Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power staged a frenetic shootout for Pole Position at Indy today with Helio setting fast time as soon as the shootout started at 4:30. With two laps over 228 and a four lap average of just under that mark, Helio put up a huge number that no one else could match. Lots of attempts were made to prevent Helio from taking a second consecutive Indy pole, the first to do so since the late Scott Brayton, but no one could do it. Dario Franchitti made a late charge to sneak into the outside of Row 1 and prevent a Penske sweep of the top three positions and save face for Ganassi Racing. It was an amazing display of bravado by all the drivers who made it into the new Top 9 shoot out and incredibly no one went over the limit and found the wall while chasing Helio's unbeatable time. Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato were not so lucky as they hit the wall earlier in the day and must try to qualify Sunday on Bump Day. Mario Moraes had a spin with wall contact but came back to make the show with a solid run. So now there are only 9 positions left in the field for the 500 and Bump Day should be another great show for the fans. It will be hot and greasy so I would expect there to be more car control issues for drivers dealing with conditions they have not seen all week. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Indy 500 Practice Resumes: Three Days to Pole Shootout

After a complete washout of practice Monday May 17th, the IZOD Indycar teams got back to business today with nearly a full day of practice in cold and overcast conditions. Most of the teams ran in coordinated groups doing fuel runs and practicing in the draft with teammates and others. Scott Dixon led the way today and the track was very busy until almost Happy Hour, when a few sprinkles created two brief caution periods. Mario Moraes and Marco Andretti jumped into the top 5 speed list today but the day ended ten minutes early after EJ Viso clouted the Turn One wall after spinning. I was in Turn 3 today hoping for favorable lighting conditions and am probably changing my race day game plan to shoot from there. Three is the last corner at Indy without tall fencing to shoot through and I have had good luck there in the past.

Even though the teams put lots of laps in today, it may prove to be rather meaningless come Pole Day, just three days from now. The weather forecast is typical for us Hoosiers, as the old saying goes, "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change." And change dramatically as the weekend is predicted to be hot with temperatures in the 80's, quite a contrast to the damp and cool conditions which have prevailed since the track opened Saturday.

There have been no less than 36 drivers on the track in the limited practice so far this week and there are several others pounding the pavement hoping to get a shot at qualifying. I've seen Jacques Lazier, and today Oriol Servia was talking to Dario Franchitti and Alex Tagliani at different points during the day. The tough part about a shortened practice week is other drivers won't have time to put together late deals, unless someone gets desperate this Sunday when Bump Day rolls around. It wouldn't be the first time someone jumped in a car on the last qualifying day and stuck it in the show with hardly any laps. Greg Beck's entries have not hit the track as yet so his equipment might be available to someone with a big enough pocketbook.

Everyone seems to have no trouble getting up to 220 right away (even Milka!) so I would expect the bump speed to be around 221.7 by the time all the shouting stops this Sunday when the gun goes off at 6 p.m. It also looks like a pole speed of close to 227 might be possible, but it will need to be ideal conditions and a near-perfect four lap run to make that speed. Lots of folks are already running faster than last year's pole speed of 224+, but they are also running in packs with help from the draft. As the weather warms up by Friday and teams begin to roll out their qualifying setups, the real speeds will emerge as the pack practice will stop and drivers will be looking for open space on track to run by themselves.

The Speedway is really pumping up the "shootout" angle as they are playing an amped up electric guitar version of the theme song from the classic Clint Eastwood western, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" with regularity on the track's PA system and video boards. The good will take pole position Saturday evening, the bad will go home Sunday night, and the ugly will probably scare themselves (or worse: become acquainted with the SAFER barrier) just trying to make the field of 33. It doesn't get much better than this folks. C'mon out!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Helio Fastest For Indy's Opening Weekend

The opening weekend of practice for the 94th Indianapolis 500 is now over and the usual suspects are at the top of the speed chart, led by Helio Castroneves. Target teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti are close behind after a weekend of schedule interruptions and changes caused by intermittent rainy weather. The only incident of the weekend occurred late Sunday when 2005 Indy winner Dan Wheldon smacked the Turn 4 SAFER barrier. This year's crop of rookies looked smooth and got through an abbreviated rookies only session today with no problems. The track was opened up for all comers at 2:15 and teams quickly got down to business with packs of cars drafting and looking for fast times. Nearly 1400 laps were run today even though the track closed around 5:30 when a steady mist finally got the track too wet to continue practice.

Tony Kanaan shook down five Andretti Autosport cars Saturday but focused on his 7-Eleven ride today and the results showed on the speed charts. Pole Day is shaping up as a battle royale for the Fast Nine spots among the Penske, Target and Andretti camps. With five more days of practice until then, and the prospect of more rain in the forecast every day this week, track time will be at a premium and I expect teams to take advantage of every bit of green light time they get. Indy Racing League officials adjusted today's schedule after Saturday was mostly washed out, so I would not be surprised if more schedule changes are made throughout the week to make sure teams get the time they need to prepare for qualifying. Top speeds today were set in the draft, so it will be interesting to see what Helio et all can run by themselves without benefit of a tow from another car. More of that will be seen later in the week as teams hone in on a qualifying setup.

It was like old home week for me at the Speedway this weekend as I ran into lots of photographer friends and began to feel as though drivers were recognizing me after spending so much time shooting Indycar races the last five seasons. I even ran into Soctt Dixon's dad and shook his hand, asking him if he had been to Marsh lately, after talking with him there a couple of weeks ago in the express checkout line. My brother and I stopped into the 500 Oldtimers suite during one rain delay and Johnny Rutherford walked in with a greeting of "Looks like a bunch of oldtimers in here!" I have not made it out to the corners to shoot yet but there was plenty to do this weekend as I tried to get as many driver shots as possible and spent quite a bit of time atop the F1 garages shooting cars entering Turn 1. It is a great vantage point and one of the few places at Indy where you can really see the drivers working the steering wheel. Several cars were bottoming out going into one when tire pressures were low and showers of sparks were flying as a result. There are a few rookies who still are searching for the correct entry line into One, but I was very impressed by how quickly they all got up to speed.

The prettiest car at the track is the Lotus-themed Dallara of rookie Takuma Sato, who looked quick and smooth throughout his rookie test. The following slideshow is a quick look at pix from this weekend and there will be much more to follow this week as I spend as much time as possible at the Track. I'll be the one wearing the Canon photo vest. See you there!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Countdown To Indy: 1 More Day to Track Time

Every May around Indianapolis, you can always tell when the Speedway is about to open for Indy 500 practice. "500 Festival" hotshots are tooling around in their pace cars. Checkered flags start showing up in people's yards or hung from their homes. Drivers start making publicity appearances for their sponsors. The local news media ramps up their print and video coverage of preparations for the opening of the Track.

The teams are now all ensconced in Gasoline Alley and getting down to the business of preparing their cars to hit the track in a little more than 24 hours from now. Drivers are gearing up with media appearances at places like Macy's, which has a huge push on now for sales of IZOD Indycar Series merchandise. Driver "experts" will soon be in demand for the local television stations. Earlier this week, I attended a live broadcast of the show at McGilvery's Pub on the westside and heard Ed Carpenter, Vitor Meira and AJ Foyt IV talking about their preparations. They appeared relaxed and ready to go as the best time of year in Indy is about to get underway. The pub was packed for the show and the Hoosier 100 promoter was also there, so if you are in Indy for the 500 weekend, go out to the State Fairgrounds after Carb Day activities are over and watch the USAC Silver Crown cars run 100 miles on the mile dirt. If you still can't get enough racing that weekend, then go to O'Reilly Raceway Park the next night for the "Night Before the 500" USAC Midget show on the 5/8 mile paved oval. The Star Mazda series will also be featured that night.

At the show, it was especially interesting to hear Vitor and AJ talk about being teammates this year. Vitor has made an incredible comeback from back injuries suffered in his crash with Rafael Matos during last year's 500, and he told a great story about discussions with team owner AJ Foyt about reassurances he got about the ride being available to him when he recovered. He also talked about the new Pole Day qualifying format and indicated he knew it was for the benefit of the fans. Foyt IV was very entertaining and said he would be happy to qualify 10th on Pole Day and didn't seem to want any part of the Fast Nine session that day. He was asked about his relationship with AJ and said it is much better now that he is not crashing AJ's cars. The best part of the interview was his comment that there have been times with these IRL cars when they weren't handling (like at Richmond) where he "just wanted to crash and get it over with". The crowd loved the comment and of course everyone understood that he wasn't really hoping to crash and that he was describing what it was like trying to maneuver an ill-handling race car when every corner the thing might swap ends on him.

The six rookies entered for this year's race will get the bulk of the track time this weekend after the veterans are given the first two hours Saturday and Sunday to shake things down. Takuma Sato, Simona De Silvestro, Ana Beatriz, Jay Howard, Bertrand Baguette, Mario Romancini and Sebastrian Saavedra each have good teams behind them and while they may be limited in big car, big track experience, none are newcomers. Sato has a wealth of Formula One experience (plus Honda money) and ran the USGP at Indy for Honda's F1 program on Indy's road course, although turning left exclusively will be new for him. De Silvestro was the last Formula Atlantic champion, won several races in that now-defunct series and has looked stout on the road courses so far this year in her maiden Indycar season. Ana was the first woman to win a Firestone Indy Lights race (at Nashville two years ago) and comes back to Indy this year hoping to forget her huge Turn 1 Indy Lights wreck that I photographed in the 2009 Freedom 100. Howard is teamed with Sarah Fisher and got laps at Indy last May but looked shaky in his initial foray at the Speedway so I hope he keeps his foot down and that Sarah's little team can give him a good car. Baguette is an unknown but Saavedra dominated a number of Indy Lights races in 2009 so he should do well with sufficient track time.

I'll be there tomorrow to bring it all home and I hope you'll come back for further updates as the run-up to Pole Day next Saturday continues. Go fast. Turn Left. Bring it back in one piece. That is what these rookies hope to do this weekend before the Track opens up for all entrants on Monday.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Indy 500 Countdown: 5 Days Until the Roar Begins

Having moved to Indianapolis shortly after my 11th birthday, it wasn't long before the lure of the Brickyard had me smitten. My grandfather introduced me to racing at about the age of the boy in this photo, and with my birthday near 500 race day every year, I have great memories of listening to Sid Collins call the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" on the radio while eating watermelon and birthday cake at Grandpa's house. My dad took me to see the movie "Winning" for my 12th birthday and I saw my first 500 for my next birthday. I've been every year since 1976 and the changes that have occurred at 16th & Georgetown have been well documented through the years. I was reminded last week while picking up Mini Marathon packets at the Indiana Convention Center that much of the race's allure has been lost since the 500 was only available on radio. The saddest part is that casual fans will never know what they have been missing. And where will the next generation of Indycar fans come from?

As I shot pictures of this young man walking around Danica's show car at the Convention Center, I flashed back through my years as a fan, spectator and photographer. Every year it seems photographers talk and wonder where the next generation of shooters are who will put in the time that so many of us have invested, waiting for three seconds of action day after day to get "the shot". Around here, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is simply "The Speedway", or "The Track", as in, "Are you going out to The Track today?" It was commonplace to skip class in high school on a nice May day and go watch practice for a couple of bucks. Spending all night waiting for the gates to open on race day to run in and get a spot on the infield fence was an annual event in and of itself. So many rituals like that have fallen by the wayside; many say it is because there are so many entertainment options available to people today.

One reason not often given is a simple change in philosophy at the Speedway: when the decision was made to erect grandstands where the infield crowd used to gather in the Turn 1 Snakepit, the opportunity for casual fans to be part of an "event" began to dwindle. That crowd got moved to Turns 3 & 4 and then the road course was built and the spaces by the fence dwindled even further. I will agree that the spectator mounds have been a great addition for fan comfort. But I still miss the chaos of bikers and loaded-down vans racing into the track at 5 a.m. on race day, now replaced by orderly processions into lined parking areas inside Turn 3. And while it is true that the rowdy fans of years past are fewer in number due to physical limitations, I really believe the loss of that rowdy element has had an effect on the Indy 500 fan base and pushed people to NASCAR where they could camp out for days on end and carry on with relative abandon. Racing has always had that element of wildness and its loss to a more corporate environment is hard to explain to people whose only knowledge of Indy is what they see on Sportscenter.

Ignore if you can all the infighting that followed the IRL-CART split and the bickering among fans who still want to place blame for the "demise" of open wheel racing. The fact remains that creature comforts at Indy are vastly improved and Indy is still the race that every race fan anywhere knows about. Winning the Indy 500 itself is still highly sought after by racers. The Indycar rules since the IRL was formed have arguably created the closest competition that the Speedway has ever seen. I know Indy diehards lament the loss of 100,000 people turning out on pole day, but when the action is available on TV and the Internet, who can blame today's fans for staying home? Something more must be done to get people to the track and it has to start at an earlier age. More school bus field trips to the Track, not just in May but year-round. Organized tours of the 500 Museum, the track and garages with "open house" style events for all comers, free of charge. Chances for average people to drive their cars on the track and kiss the bricks like the winners. Raffles for suite passes and bronze badges for garage area access when the Track is open for practice. Individual and group visits with drivers and team owners, not just for people associated with sponsors. More contests for tickets to other Indycar events. Chances to drive an Indy Lights car. Hot laps at other non-IRL race events to help people understand the sounds and smells of an ethanol fueled Indycar. Indianapolis racing has got to get personal again so that new fans can understand their fathers' passion for all things Indy and go to the racetrack in truckloads like we used to do.

The photos of the boy at Danica's car got me started on this post, but the clincher for me occurred a few minutes after taking the shots as I was about to leave the Convention Center. On the PA system, I heard an announcement that Firestone Indy Lights driver Martin Plowman was on hand to sign autographs. I walked over to the table where he sat preparing his hero cards to hand out. No one knew who he was and there was no one near him. There were no banners or anything denoting this was a racer on the ladder to the Indy 500. Not even a Firestone backdrop for his autograph session. So I went and talked to Martin for quite a few minutes and told him what a great show the Lights cars put on at the Speedway, where they can run three wide through Turn 1 with room to spare. We talked about the pictures I had of his crash in last year's Freedom 100 and the other race tracks the Indy Lights run as companion to the IZOD Indycar Series. He was very gracious and willing to talk, for as long as I wanted to it seemed, and while I was excited to have this one-on-one time with him, I walked away a bit angry that a good PR opportunity for Indy Lights and Indycars wasn't being maximized. The IRL had their fan trailer there near Danica's car, but Martin was sitting more than 50 yards away. With 40,000 runners coming to the Convention Center to get their Mini Marathon packets, I was surprised there wasn't more of a push to bring more focus to Martin's presence and the real reason there is a Mini Marathon in the first place: The Indy 500.

Today is Helio Castroneves 35th birthday and it only takes one conversation with him to know how passionate he is about Indy. We've got to share that fire with anyone who will listen. I know I do, at every chance I get, and just like this blog post, you get me started talking about Indycars and the 500 and I may never stop. It's still the greatest race in the world. If you don't believe me, put down the iPhone and satellite remote and go to the track next week. Experiencing Indy in person is nothing like television so pack a cooler, take grandma and the kids and find a spot on the Turn 3 mounds. Go smell the ethanol exhaust just once and you'll want to go back for more.

But that's just one Hoosier's opinion. I've got plenty more where that came from. Just ask me.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Indy 500 Countdown: 10 Days to Opening Day

With his dominating win on the 1.5 mile Kansas oval, Scott Dixon has thrown down the gauntlet for his Indycar competitiors. Not only did the Target Ganassi gang have something up their sleeve (as I suspected) for the first oval race of the 2010 IZOD Indycar Series, they blew everyone away taking the top two steps on the podium with Dario Franchitti claiming second. Dixon leading an IRL oval race is nothing new, nor is leading the vast majority of race laps (167 of 200) a new experience for him. He and Dario have consistently been pack leaders with everyone else chasing on oval tracks. With eight days of practice leading up to Pole Day at Indy May 22nd, Dixon and Dario will be tough to beat. Season points leader Will Power finished two laps down in 12th at Kansas, although his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves ran strong to finish fourth. With all eyes on Indy beginning May 15th, a spirited battle for pole position between the Ganassi and Penske teams is virtually assured. With 40 entrants going for the first 24 spots on Pole Day, competition will be fierce, especially for the top 9 spots on the Indy scoring pylon: those drivers will have two shots at the pole between 4:30 and 6:00 p.m. that day.
Kansas began a string of four straight oval races for the IRL, and it remains to be seen if Will Power can hold onto his series points lead. Dixon is nipping at his heels now in second, with Helio third and Andretti Autosports' Ryan Hunter-Reay in fourth. By the time the IRL has finished this run of oval tracks in June, the season will be nearly half over and questions remain for many of the regulars. Can Power maintain his points lead or will he change his focus to the new road/street circuit championship? And what will happen to Hunter-Reay after his IZOD money dries up following Texas? If he is still in the top five in points and outrunning his other Andretti teammates, how in the world can the team realistically park him over funding? Tony Kanaan had a solid run to third at Kansas, his best finish in quite some time, and RHR was right there in fifth behind Helio. So perhaps TK is about to turn the corner, but his luck has never been very good at Indianapolis. Justice would be served if RHR qualifies for the 500 in the top 9 and finishes strongly in the race; IZOD surely would see the light and come up with a way for their man to continue and fight for the season championship. He appears to be one of the most confident drivers out there now, and May 2010 should have a whole different feel for him than last year when he barely made the show.
And where the heck is Danica? Nowhere near the front is the answer. The darling of the IRL has been outclassed everywhere so far this season with dismal results for the Go Daddy girl. A crash at Brazil on slicks when rain tires were needed, poor starts (and finishes) on the other road courses, and a distant 11th at Kansas two laps down don't bode well for Indy. Perhaps the extra track time at the Speedway will help her find her way again, but my guess is the struggle will continue. Look for the surly girl more often than not along pit lane and in Gasoline Alley this May. I'll be watching Indy's other lady racers Simona De Silvestro and Ana Beatriz to see if they outshine their more famous colleague. The only good news for Danica is she still has fight in her, evidenced by her Kansas dice with Helio while being lapped.
As for Pole Position, don't count Helio out. He has shown the ability to be fastest when four laps are needed at Indy. He will also be going for a fourth Indy 500 win this year to join Indycar legends AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Sr. and Rick Mears in that elite group. These and other great stories remain to be told this May and there is always a surprise or two that comes from the month. As a 500 Oldtimer, I look forward to more surprises this year at 16th & Georgetown. I'll be there most every day to cover the activity on the track, on pit lane and in the garage area with daily blog posts and photo galleries, both here and on American Motor Journal's website.
The Speedway continues its Centennial Celebration this year pointing towards 2011 which will mark the 100th year since the first 500 in 1911. While Tony Hulman has been gone for quite awhile now, you wonder how he would view the current state of affairs in Indycars. With a shorter "Month of May" than in recent years, new Pole Day qualifying rules, perhaps as many as five women starting the 500, new oval and road/street course awards, and a host of other changes in the IRL for 2010, many Indy "traditions" have fallen by the wayside in an effort to recoup lost ground with fans. There is still nothing better than going into the track race day before dawn, hearing the bomb go off when the gates open, and seeing those balloons drift skyward before the racers are unleashed into Turn 1 for the first time. Praying for some "Tony Hulman" race day weather is one tradition that will continue as long as they turn left 800 times to find victory at Indianapolis. See you at the track!