Friday, December 20, 2013

Firestone Indy Lights Recap 2013

The 4-wide photo finish at Indy was a season highlight for Indy Lights
The Firestone Indy Lights Series has been the last step on the Mazda Road to Indy for several years now and although the car count in 2013 was less than what people would like to see, great things are expected in the future as new series management takes over in 2014. A new chassis and engine combination has been announced for 2015 which should update the equipment to more modern specifications and make the transition to Indycars even smoother for the top series drivers.

Even with small fields, the Indy Lights drivers put on some spectacular races at times, topped by the crazy four wide photo finish in the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis as the undercard to the Indy 500 in May. I knew something wild was going to happen when the top three went wheel to wheel through Turns 3 and 4, but no one expected Peter Dempsey to jump to the high side on the front straight to make it four wide and steal the win at the finish line. I was at the finish line and got the photo finish for in one of my best moments of my 2013 racing season. It was a great moment for the series too and I always love shooting these races since they involve the future stars of Indycar who you can watch learn their craft.

Carlos Munoz
The star of the 2013 season was Carlos Munoz as far as I am concerned. He blew away the field at Barber Motorsports Park early in the season and then nearly won the Indy 500 as a rookie when he was doing double duty during May in the big cars and in Lights. He followed up his impressive month of May with a strong and aggressive drive at Fontana in the season finale to earn a full time Indycar drive with Andretti Autosport for next season. With four Indy Lights wins and a third place season finish in 2013, he's clearly a star on the rise but he also has a lot to learn. His fearless style rankled his more experienced Andretti teammates in May on more than one occasion. I had two memorable encounters involving Carlos in 2013 and the first one involved listening in on a huddle among his teammates James Hinchcliffe, EJ Viso and Ryan Hunter-Reay after Munoz dive bombed one of them during Indy 500 practice in May. Apparently, no one told Carlos you can't (or shouldn't" run below the white line in Turn 1 or that passes during practice needed to be coordinated to avoid an incident. We all know how that turned out as the Andretti boys were strong all month and either Carlos or RHR could have won the 500 if the late caution flags had fallen differently.

Hinch, RHR & Viso discuss a Munoz maneuver at Indy in May
My second encounter with Carlos was during the Mid Ohio weekend when the friends I was traveling with and I decided to hit a Mexican restaurant at the Belleville exit. After a few minutes, in walks Carlos with a few guys in Andretti gear and I said "Hey, it's Carlos!" as his group sat down at a table nearby. From the way he reacted, I don't think he expected anyone to recognize him. It was another one of those moments where it felt good to know people in the sport and be where racers were gathering on a race weekend.
Sage Karam took the Indy Lights season championship
Firestone Indy Lights has produced a number of excellent racers who have moved up to Indycars over the years and I'm sure the 2013 crop of drivers will be no different. Sage Karam won the season title and there were several times where I saw him soaking up advice from various Indycar drivers, most notably Tony Kanaan at Mid Ohio after Sage had an off during an Indy Lights session. You could see how upset he was with himself but TK's advice clearly calmed Sage down, and it looked like he was telling him "It's OK kid. It happens to all of us" so he could go back on track with a clear head and forget about the mistake he'd made. It's another one of the great things about this series running as a companion event with Indycar. Not only do young drivers get experience on Indycar tracks and exposure to Indycar owners, but they get the benefit of counsel from their big car brethren on occasion. I would bet that those words are often as valuable as the seat time for some of these young guys who surely must feel the pressure to perform in a series where sponsorship is hard to come by and where their very futures as racecar drivers may well be at stake.
Sage Karam gets some words of wisdom from Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan at Mid Ohio
At any rate, I'm glad to have had the chance to experience these kinds of moments while on assignment and I look forward to more of the same in the future. With Christmas now just a few days away and 2013 winding down, I still have a couple more blog posts to complete in order to finish my season reflections, so until then, here's a slideshow of my Indy Lights work this year to tide you over.

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