Tuesday, March 27, 2012

IZOD Indycar Opener to Helio: Dancing with Danny

Helio and daughter at Indy 2011
The first Indycar race of the new era is now in the books, stirring memories of the late champion Dan Wheldon throughout the weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida. In one of the most stirring Indycar moments in years, Helio stopped in Turn 10 on the course during his victory lap, and climbed the fence on Dan Wheldon Way, overcome by emotion as he pounded on and pointed to the street name sign on the portion of the circuit where Danny made the winning pass in the Inaugural St. Pete GP in 2005 which kicked off his Indycar championship season. The pre-race salute to Dan during the ABC broadcast was monumental, and his sister Holly Wheldon waved the green flag, and later handed out the winner's trophy, to cap an Indycar weekend full of promise for this new era.

Dan Wheldon, Indy 2011
Nearly stealing the show before it even began was James Hinchcliffe, who donned a long brown wig during driver introductions before the race as "Manica" made an appearance in the GoDaddy colors. In a remarkably clean race, Helio made an outside pass on Scott Dixon in Turn One and led the final 25 laps to take his third win at St. Pete. No one else has won this race more than once and after Helio failed to score a win in 2011, he was one happy camper afterwards. Seven different drivers led laps Sunday led by Scott Dixon's 37, who has now finished as runner up to Helio each time Helio has won on the streets of St. Pete. Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe both finished where they started (in 3rd and 4th respectively) and Helio's teammate Ryan Briscoe rounded out the top five. The drive of the race, however, was put in by Simon Pagenaud who finished 6th from 16th on the grid after his team made an unapproved engine change after Saturday's qualifying and was hit with a ten-spot grid penalty for the start of the race. It looks like Indycar's new "sheriff" Beaux Barfield is all business after enforcing this penalty, along with making the car of EJ Viso carry an extra 15 pounds of ballast after a random weight check of the driver revealed a discrepancy from his pre-season weigh-in.

Given the past history of this event where first turn shemozzles have routinely taken out numerous contenders,  it was expected that there would be lots of  car contact but it never materialized, even with the larger bodywork and massive front wings on the new Dallara DW12 design. Only James Jakes found the barriers during the race, so now everyone is in good shape heading for Barber Motorsports Park this weekend and the quick turnaround should make everyone more comfortable for their second race with the enw equipment. The flipside is that teams will have less time to work out electrical and gearbox gremlins which took out Tony Kanaan and others. Lotus clearly has more work to do to get on par with Chevy and Honda, but should surprise no one that Penske and Chevy are leading the way so far this season with Ilmor as their engine building. All those years of Honda experience are clearly being put to use with the new twin turbo that carries the Chevy badge. No one should forget what Ilmor was able to do for Penske in years past, as "The Captain" continues to seek the "unfair advantage" while somehow always managing to stay within the rules. Honda will need to step up its game and respond to competition with a little more agressive approach as Honda's history of super reliability may not help them win many races in this new era of engine competition.

It's a good thing the Indy 500 is still 61 days away so the teams can continue to fine tune their gear. The cars sure looked gorgeous on television and in the pictures I checked out on the PaddockTalk and Trackside Online websites (who my friends shoot for). If I can't be at the track, these are the folks I go to for Indycar photos and information since I know who's behind them, but Twitter has become the best source of "in race" chatter for me. If you want to know more about Indycars, then  these are the people behind the media who  I follow on Twitter; check them out:  https://twitter.com/#!/alleygroup/indycar-media

Until next time, keep those cards and letters coming race fans. The next one I get will be the first one! See you at the track.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Countdown to IZOD Indycar Series Action

2011 IZOD Indycar Series Champ Dario Franchitti
The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is barely a week away for the IZOD Indycar series teams, and with it surely will come bittersweet moments. This will be the first time for the series to return to action in anger since losing Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas last October. A street on the circuit has been renamed in Danny's honor; 2012 Indy 500 tickets are now out with his likeness honoring his 2011 500 win; this race was first won by him on 2005; and his wife and children still call St. Pete home, a place which Danny adopted and which adopted him. Bittersweet indeed.

I wish I were shooting the St. Pete race, as well as the rest of the races in the series this year. If you follow me @alleygroup on Twitter or have seen my website, you know the kind of motorsports  photo work I am capable of producing. But  until someone hires me to shoot for their team or sponsor, I have other fish to fry right now which will keep me away from racetracks for awhile. I am wrapping up my basketball officiating this weekend and will have done 79 youth games since last October, nearly equivalent to a full NBA regular season. Soccer officiating is starting up this weekend also, so that will keep me busy and help pay the bills. In addition,  the school year where I am currently teaching is 75% complete and I must finish my Marian University internship portfolio by the end of April to get my full time teaching license in May. As a result it looks like I may not be able to get back to shooting motorsports until the end of April. I have the ARCA race at Salem Speedway penciled in, then the May NASCAR weekend at Talladega and then Indy 500 practice, qualifications and the race the rest of May. Somewhere in the mix, I must find work for the summer and a full time teaching job for the 2012-2013 school year. 

Whew! Lest anyone think I'm spewing sour grapes, rest assured that I consider myself blessed by the experiences I have had since deciding to make a career change in October 2009. Keeping busy has not been a problem, although making  a living has been challenging at times. Some of my best experiences have come at racetracks and I've met lots of great people in racing since I started shooting at Indy in 1984. My last Indycar race was at Kentucky last fall, two weeks before  the fateful Las Vegas finale, and ironically that may have been the last Indycar race at Kentucky - ever. That would be a shame, but this year's schedule of 16 events should still provide the  open wheel thrills and stiff competition for which Indycar is renowned. 

Lots of people I know in Indycar will be at St. Pete next weekend, many of whom were at Las Vegas last October. Anyone involved in the series knows how hard things have been through the winter, so it will be great for  everyone to get back to racing. And new promise lies in the DW12 Dallara machine, powered now by a choice of Honda, Chevy or Lotus. Cars named in honor of Danny will be screaming through St. Pete in the acid test of the new specification next week. Indycar has new technical people involved like Beaux Barfield to support Randy Bernard's vision for the future.

Josef Newgarden joins Indycar this year after dominating Indy Lights
Teams and drivers have been shuffled too since last year, but  I'll bet the Penske and Ganassi teams are still going to  lead the way.  Two notable moves involve the Mayor of Hinchtown, James Hinchcliffe, who now has the seat at Andretti Autosport which DW had been hired to fill before Vegas.  And the most experienced driver in Formula One history, Rubens Barrichello, is coming to KV Racing as Tony Kanaan's teammate. Those two changes alone should really spice up the on track competition.  Hinch was my  2011 Rookie of the Year pick back in January before the season started and he delivered despite missing one early season race. Not this year. I think he will challenge for the season title and be the man to bring the Andretti team back to the forefront of the series. Add former Champ Car stalwart Katherine Legge, Ed Carpenter as a team owner/driver (now with a win under his belt),  Firestone Indy Lights champ Josef Newgarden and a host of others to the mix and who knows what might happen. 

Scott Dixon tabbed to win 2012 IZOD Indycar Series for Ganassi
In January last year, I wrote here that Dario would win the season title, Hinch would be the top rookie, and Ed Carpenter would win an oval race. I don't have  a crystal ball but I have fun with these predictions every year,  and enjoy revisiting them periodically to see how I did. For 2012, the new equipment formula is the true wildcard, as the team which tests and advances the most, and has engine reliability, is likely to be the series champ. This year I think that means Ganassi and Scott Dixon, on the last weekend of the year, over Hinchtown and Dario. Helio wins Indy again to join the legends at the 500 but it's his only win. Takuma Sato and Rubens Barrichello get surprise wins in 2012, but those will come late in the season once their teams come to grips with their new gear. And once Simona or Katherine win a race this year, everyone will quickly forget the young lady who jumped to racing stock cars after the IZOD Indycar Series made her a household name. Take that one to the bank. I hope to see you soon at a racetrack near you!