Thursday, September 30, 2010

Franchitti & Power Face Off At Homestead for Indycar Title

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

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

Is it May yet?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Armstrong Takes Salem ARCA Thriller

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

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

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Indycar & ARCA Championships Wind Down

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

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

Monday, September 13, 2010

2012 IndyCar: Tony Cotman's blog -

2012 IndyCar: Tony Cotman's blog -

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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

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

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

March 27 - St Pete

April 10 - Barber

April 17 - Long Beach

May 1 - Brazil

May 29 - Indy 500

June 11 - Texas Twin 275's (night)

June 19 - Milwaukee

June 25 - Iowa (night)

July 10 - Toronto

July 24 - Edmonton

August 7 - Mid Ohio (with ALMS)

August 14 - New Hampshire

August 28 - Infineon

Sept 4 - Labor Day - Baltimore

Sept 18 - Motegi

Oct 2- Kentucky

Oct 16 - Vegas/Fontana.

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

IZOD Indycar Series 2011 Schedule Ready

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

March 13 - Brazil

March 27 - St Pete

April 17 - Long Beach

April 10 - Barber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Castroneves Takes Kentucky Indycar Win On Fumes

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

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

Pippa Mann Gets First Indy Lights Win

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

Indycars 200th Race: Carpenter Steals Pole at Kentucky Speedway

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