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.