Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Simon Pagenaud Wins Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis

Simon Pagenaud: now an Indy winner
By just about any measure, the first ever Indycar road course race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) was a success. The weather for race day was perfect and a decent crowd reportedly in excess of 40,000 fans showed up. The infield spectator mounds were packed and the Indycar drivers put on a show for those in attendance. I have suggested to many people that this was a perfect opportunity for the casual Indycar fan to experience the Verizon Indycars in a road racing setting. And what better place to do it than at the Speedway? Not only that, if the only Indycar race you have ever attended is the Indianapolis 500, then watching the Indycar drivers joust on the IMS road course should have been an eye opener. The course was fast and racy, and there was much to see, beginning with a start line accident and ending with the fast and likable Frenchman Simon Pagenaud taking his third career Indycar win. Indiana's harsh winter and late spring did no favors for the Speedway's crews who were tasked with preparing the reconfigured road course for the event, as some areas where earthmoving had occurred were a little ragged and not up to the Speedway's usual level of landscape grooming. But I don't think anyone noticed who was there and the show went on with relatively few glitches.

Sebastian Bourdais on the IMS frontstretch following one of Friday's rain showers 
I was shooting for motorsport.com  and had a very busy weekend with two full days of shooting the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on Friday and Saturday followed by a quick turnaround for the opening day of Indy 500 practice on Sunday. The weather on Friday was typical spring in Indiana - if you don't like the weather then wait five minutes and it will change. And change it did, with several different periods of rain quickly giving way to sunshine and dry conditions.

Ryan Hunter-Reay found the wall in GP of Indy qualifying
This really created challenges for the teams but made for some very interesting photo opportunities, with rooster tails of spray galore and a potential Indycar pole winner, Ryan Hunter-Reay, smacking the concrete during Indycar qualifications after hydroplaning in Turn 14. I was waiting near the yard of bricks in the pits to take pictures of the pole award when the sound of squealing tires resonated between the grandstands on the front stretch, followed shortly by the crunch of Hunter-Reay's car into the wall.  It has been quite awhile since I have heard an Indycar crack the concrete at IMS but it was quite loud and very different than the sound heard for the last few years when they hit the metal SAFER barriers. It's a good thing it was not a high speed accident and I think this area of the front stretch is something they will need to address in the future by extending the SAFER barrier further north so the cars can't hit concrete when coming back onto the oval from Turn 14.

Simon Pagenaud navigates a turn in Indy's infield
I felt like I had a good weekend shooting and it's nice seeing my pictures used with various articles on motorsport.com. The site uses a ton of pictures from a variety of sources and I am glad to be considered as a contributor. Even as long as I've been shooting racing, I am still amazed when a situation comes up which forces me to learn something new. I had a couple of those situations this weekend and I am glad that they arise as they keep me on my toes and force me to evaluate what I am doing and how I am doing it. I won't tell you all the things I've learned this weekend, but I sure wish I had a 500 mm lens!

The new/old paint scheme Helio Castroneves has for the 500
Now the attention shifts from the IMS road course to the oval for the Indy 500. Qualifications are this weekend and the whole format has been changed so the pole winner won't be known until Sunday. Helio Castroneves is looking for his fourth Indy 500 win and leads the Penske stable in bright yellow Pennzoil colors this year, a paint scheme virtually identical to the one sported by another Penske driver and four-time Indy winner Rick Mears. Helio even changed his helmet design to mimic the one used by Mears back in the day. It's no surprise that after only two days of practice that Penske drivers are near the top of the speed charts, and the competition this week between Roger Penske's crew of Helio, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya will be fierce. Power finally won an oval race last season and Montoya won the 500 in his only previous try so they will certainly be drivers to watch. Michael Andretti's five car stable will also be in the mix, despite Hunter-Reay's accident and the concussion suffered by Jame Hinchcliffe in Indy's GP race. Of course the picture wouldn't be complete without Chip Ganassi who has last year's Indy 500 winner (Tony Kanaan), last year's Indycar season champion (Scott Dixon) and the return of Ryan Briscoe who has won the pole for the 500 before.

Every driver wants their likeness on the Borg-Warner trophy
I am looking forward to getting back to the track to work this week as my teaching schedule gives me limited opportunities until later in the week. Qualifying this weekend should be interesting but Pole Day will be different this year. Pole Day has historically been the first Saturday of qualifications for decades, but now the "Fast Nine" has been moved to Sunday.  Changes to qualifying this year have been done to spice up qualifying weekend due to the slim entry list and concerns about whether the traditional field of 33 cars will be achievable this year. No one is certain how this new format will work out, but one thing is certain about the Speedway now:  nothing is certain. The new leadership of the track has shown the willingness to try lots of new things in order to maximize revenues from the property. Seeking public funding assistance as they did in 2013 for future improvements was a whole new arena for IMS management. When I read recently that former Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, has joined the Board, I knew that the groundwork was being laid for future forays into the politics of public money. Having the Sports Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) conduct a three day race event in June is another new addition to the IMS calendar for 2014. Now if the Town of Speedway can follow through on its plans to change the alignment of 16th Street and other nearby roads, maybe IMS will have enough land on the south end of the track to build a condo/race suite tower ala Texas, Atlanta and other racetracks.

I doubt anyone will be thinking about road or condo construction at IMS this weekend, with the possible exception of Doug Boles and Mark Miles. I just hope they can put on a good show for the fans, since I'm not sure the speed and risk of qualifying really translates all that well on television. Now with a few more inches of turbo boost, that could all change too! I'll be back with more later from the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Stay tuned.

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