Thursday, May 24, 2012

Previewing the Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS – With new engines, new cars and some new faces at the front of the grid, Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 figures to be as wide open as any in recent years.

None of the new engines – Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus – have gone 500 miles in competition. The possibility of engine failure – something not seen for the past several years – looms, adding to the unpredictability. Fuel mileage – which has been a factor at Indianapolis the past couple of years - also is an unknown, compounding the intrigue.

The new Dallara chassis is designed to be safer, with wheel fairings that hopefully will prevent cars from being launched into the catch fence, which is the type of incident that killed 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon in a multi-car crash at Las Vegas at the end of last season.

Indianapolis may be on the verge of a changing of the guard, with only one former winner (Helio Castroneves) in the first four rows. Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe, hardly a newcomer but also the lowest-profile driver on his team, is on the pole.

Rounding out the first row are a pair of Andretti Autosport drivers, second-year man James Hinchcliffe and veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay. Each of the drivers on the front row, plus Marco Andretti in the fourth spot, have their best starting spots ever at Indianapolis.

Given the way Roger Penske’s team has dominated at Indianapolis (record 15 wins) and this season (his team has won all four races), it’s likely Briscoe, Castroneves or series points leader Will Power will end up in Victory Lane.

“We’re very focused on this race, put a lot of emphasis on it because we all want to win here,” Power said. “I think it’s going to be a pretty crazy race.”

Here’s a closer look at the field:

The former winners
Helio Castroneves – Smooth and fast all month. A Penske car with the Chevrolet engine looks like the strongest combination.

Scott Dixon – Like the rest of the Honda drivers, hasn’t had the pace. Still, Dixon is a formidable competitor because of his smart, disciplined style who probably is the best at “making” fuel.

Dario Franchitti – Franchitti has been the biggest mystery of the season, and it carried over into qualifying. Believe it or not, he’s the slowest of the Chip Ganassi drivers and nearly was outqualified by James Jakes.

Top contenders
Ryan Briscoe – Equal parts promise and maddening inconsistency throughout his career, this is his best (and last?) chance to make it to the top

James Hinchcliffe – Affable Canadian is driving the car Danica Patrick had last year and what was intended for Dan Wheldon this year. Either would have been a large burden, but both? Give him high marks for concentrating on the task at hand – and doing a great job at that.

Ryan Hunter-Reay – Going from “buying” his way into the field last year to winning the pole this year would’ve been a great story. Part of the wave of young, American drivers with some personality.

Marco Andretti – He usually does well at Indianapolis and now has his best start ever. Is this the year the Andretti Curse ends?

Will Power – He’s dominated the season so far (three wins in four races) and possibly could be 4-for-4 if not for some ill-fated pit strategy at St. Petersburg. Indy career has been lackluster.

Tony Kanaan – The people’s choice. Has led a lot of laps at Indy (214, but none the last three races), but never the one that counts.

Graham Rahal – Fastest of the Ganassi bunch. Like Marco Andretti, needs to start living up to his name on a more regular basis to give the series a boost.

JR Hildebrand – He says he’s over what happened on the last lap last year when he crashed with the checkered flag nearly in sight.

Alex Tagliani – Last year’s pole winner has been pretty quiet this month, but could surprise

The rookies
Josef Newgarden – Kind of bizarro world here in that he’s from NASCAR country (Tennessee) and wants to drive Indy cars. Winning for Sarah Fisher is one of those improbable, feel-good stories that happens only in NASCAR, though.

Simon Pagenaud – Has had some nice runs in the races leading up to Indianapolis.

Rubens Barrichello – Adapted nicely after a stellar career in Formula One. Along with Newgarden is one of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year.

James Jakes – Did a nice job to make it in the field on the first day of qualifying

Wade Cunningham – Former Indy Lights star put together a program to run for A.J. Foyt.

Katherine Legge – Was seen as sort of Champ Car’s answer to “Danica Mania.” Prior to this season hadn’t driven a top-level open-wheel car since 2007.

Bryan Clauson – One of the few drivers in this year’s field who followed the old-school path to Indy (sprints, midgets)

Jean Alesi – Lotus engine a detriment to ex-Formula One driver

The rest
Sebastien Bourdais – A shame that the program for this capable driver came together so late

Mike Conway – Back at Indy for first time since horrific crash at the end of the 2010 race

Takuma Sato – Solid month, could snag a top 10

Charlie Kimball – The other player in last year’s dramatic finish – it was his car Hildebrand tried to pass in Turn 4 – qualified better than Ganassi mates Dixon and Franchitti

Justin Wilson – Decent driver, but not on the world’s greatest team

Oriol Servia – See above

Townsend Bell – Has had some good runs at Indianapolis, but things don’t seem to be clicking this year

Ana Beatriz – Showed surprising speed throughout the month

Michel Jourdain Jr. – Drove in the infamous “split” 500 in 1996 as a 19-year-old. Hadn’t been in an open-wheel car for close to a decade until this month

E.J. Viso – Surprise entrant in the fast nine. Unpredictable

Ed Carpenter – Potential darkhorse at the start of the month, but big crash in qualifying set first-year program back

Simona De Silvestro – Lotus-powered car not a true indicator of her ability

Sebastian Saavedra – Also slated to drive in the Indy Lights race

Photo caption: Ryan Briscoe (center) captured his first Indianapolis 500 pole. Also starting on the front row are James Hinchcliffe (left) and Ryan Hunter-Reay. 
Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Briscoe Wins Indy Pole

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s no surprise that Team Penske won the pole for the Indianapolis 500.

The driver who ultimately did it, though, was a bit unexpected.

Ryan Briscoe withstood some fierce challenges to win the top spot for the May 27 race in qualifying on Saturday with a four-lap average of 226.484 mph.

It’s the first Indy pole for Briscoe, who started 26th and finished 27th last year, and a record 17th pole for Team Penske, which also had four-time pole winner Helio Castroneves and series points leader Will Power in the nine-car shootout.

“I’m just glad it’s my turn,” Briscoe said. “We know we’re going to head into pole day or race day going up against each other. We work hard with each other and help each other to make it possible.”

James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport fell short of the pole by just .003 mph.

“Those numbers (226.484) are going to haunt me,” said Hinchcliffe, who lost the pole by the closest margin in Indy history. The difference in the four-lap, 10-mile runs was .0023 of a second, which computes to about 9 inches.

Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was bumped last year and started only after his team bought the entry of an already-qualified car, nailed down the other front-row spot with an average of 226.240 mph.

Marco Andretti (225.456 mph), Power (225.422 mph) and Castroneves (225.172 mph) make up the second row.

The drivers in the third row, rookie Josef Newgarden and veterans Tony Kanaan and E.J. Viso, eschewed the multiple attempts allowed by the shootout forma. Newgarden completed a run for an average of 224.037 mph, slightly below his earlier effort of 224.677 mph. Kanaan and Viso each took the green flag in the shootout, then pulled in and stood on their earlier speeds.

Chevrolet, returning to Indianapolis for the first time since 2005, had eight of the nine cars in the shootout, with Newgarden the lone Honda.

Nine spots remain to be filled in the 33-car field during qualifying today. Once the field is filled, the slowest car is bumped.

Sebastian Saavedra, one of five Andretti Autosport drivers to qualify on the first day, is the slowest at 222.811 mph.

The lack of performance by the Chip Ganassi teams was one of the big surprises, especially by lead drivers Scott Dixon and reigning series champion Dario Franchitti.

Graham Rahal had the best speed at 223.959 mph, earning the No. 12 starting spot, ahead of Charlie Kimball (14th, 223.868 mph), Dixon (15th, 223.684 mph) and Franchitti (16th, 223.582 mph).

It’s the worst Indy start for Franchitti, a two-time winner, since he started 17th in 2006, and Dixon’s worst start ever at Indianapolis.

“As a unit, myself and the rest of the Target guys, we’re just off,” Franchitti said. “There’s a bit of head-scratching going on.”
None of the Ganassi cars tried to requalify after their initial runs.

On the other hand, at least they’re in the race. The drivers for A.J. Foyt are on the outside looking in after both Mike Conway and Wade Cunningham were bumped.

Conway was comfortably in the field with an average above 223 mph, but the run was disqualified after it was found the car was under weight.

“We shouldn’t have been out there in the first place,” Conway said. “We’ve got to go qualify again, do a time, and that’s it.”

Veterans Ed Carpenter and Oriol Servia – both in the fast nine last year, with Servia on the outside of the front row – will have to go to backup cars after crashes during qualifying attempts. Rookie Bryan Clauson also will have to go to his backup car after a wreck.

Neither of the Lotus drivers – Simona De Silvestro and Jean Alesi – made a qualifying attempt. De Silvestro practiced, but Alesi was not on the track.

Photo credit: John Cote/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Carpenter Third Crash of Today

INDIANAPOLIS – Ed Carpenter, trying to bump his way back in the field, crashed heavily in Turn 2 after taking the green flag to start a qualifying run.

He was able to exit the car after doing a spin and slamming the wall in Turn 2, with the car almost turning on its side.

Carpenter, who started eighth last year, was trying to knock out Sebastien Bourdais, who holds the 24th spot at 222.415 mph. Carpenter’s warm-up lap was 222.022 mph.

After an almost incident-free week, Carpenter’s wreck was the third on Saturday, following wall contact by Bryan Clauson and Oriol Servia.

Kanaan in Shootout

INDIANAPOLIS – Fan favorite Tony Kanaan is back in the field in a big way.

Kanaan, who had a run that would’ve put him comfortably in the fast nine before being disqualified after technical inspection, requalified at 224.751 mph to put him sixth on the provisional grid.

That effort knocked Rubens Barrichello out of the fast nine and Ed Carpenter out of the field.

Eight of the top nine cars are Chevrolets. Rookie Josef Newgarden has the lone Honda in the fast nine.

The target speed for the fast nine is E.J. Viso’s 224.422 mph. The bump speed at No. 24 is Townsend Bell’s 221.514 mph.

A practice session is under way. Drivers have until 4 p.m. to make it into the fast nine or top 24. The fast nine shootout is slated to begin at 4:30 p.m.

Photo credit: Shawn Gritzmacher/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Hinchcliffe on Pole for Now

INDIANAPOLIS – We’ve gone through the original qualifying line – and then some – and now have a break in the action following a crash by Oriol Servia.

Servia spun in Turn 4, backed into the inside wall at the head of the pits, then smacked the attenuator at the entrance of the pits, spun around and came to a rest. Servia, who started on the front row last year but has struggled this year, climbed from the car.

The provisional fast nine has some big surprises, both in terms of who’s in (E.J. Viso and Rubens Barrichello) and who’s out (everyone who drives a Chip Ganassi car).

James Hinchcliffe, driving the car intended for Dan Wheldon, has the provisional pole with a four-lap average of 225.746 mph.

Rounding out the front row at the moment are Will Power (225.399 mph) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (225.289 mph).

The second row consists of Helio Castroneves (225.282,) Ryan Briscoe (225.078 mph) and Marco Andretti (224.680 mph).

Rookie Josef Newgarden, Viso and Barrichello make up the third row.

Barrichello, a Formula One veteran who won the 2002 United State Grand Prix at Indianapolis, knocked Alex Tagliani, last year’s pole sitter, out of the top nine with a run of 224.264 mph.

Tony Kanaan was securely in the fast nine with an average of 225.100 mph, but that run was disallowed because his car did not have the required ballast.

Photo credit: Forrest Mellott / Indianapolis Motor Speedway 

Franchitti Due Next

INDIANAPOLIS – Dario Franchitti is due next to qualify after the cleanup is completed from Bryan Clauson’s crash, followed by Graham Rahal, Josef Newgarden, Ryan Briscoe and Ana Beatriz.
Photo credit: Dana Garrett/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Clauson Crashes

INDIANAPOLIS - Rookie Bryan Clauson. who had a strong qualifying run going, spun and slammed the wall in the south end of the track. Clauson, who climbed from his car after the wreck, had completed three laps at an average of 223.785 mph (good for sixth at the time).

Power On Pole In Early Going

INDIANAPOLIS – We have a little break after Sebastian Saavedra had a mechanical problem – looks like a blown engine – and halted qualifying.
Six cars have accepted runs, led by Will Power at 225.399 mph. This is a smidge better than his best speed in morning practice (225.364 mph). Second is Helio Castroneves (225.282) while Tony Kanaan rounds out the provisional front row at 225.100 mph.
The other three qualifiers are Charlie Kimball (223.868), Scott Dixon (223.868) and Townsend Bell (221.514).
This is a pretty big comedown for Bell, who started fourth last year.
Justin Wilson is due to qualify next.

Plenty of Seats Available

INDIANAPOLIS - A quick note about the crowd: It's pretty small. I sat in the lower level of the stands in the entrance to Turn 1, and by my estimate there were a few hundred - maybe up to 1,000 - in that area. There are pockets of fans here and there along the main stretch and a smattering in Turn 4. 

Andretti Sits Out Practice Session

INDIANAPOLIS – A couple of minutes of practice remain, but no one seems eager to take advantage. It looks like the top five in practice this morning will be:
1.) Helio Castroneves, 227.744 mph
2.) Ana Beatriz, 226.187 mph
3.) Ryan Briscoe, 226.027 mph
4.) Dario Franchitti, 225.846 mph
5.) James Hinchcliffe, 225.784.

What about Marco Andretti, who had the fastest lap of the week entering today? He did not turn a lap at speed. He did leave pit lane, then came in. Also notable by his absence was teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who did not leave the pits as far as I could tell.

Qualifying starts at 11 a.m. Tony Kanaan drew the first spot, followed by Simona de Silvestro. De Silvestro was the slowest of the 30 drivers who practiced this morning with a lap at 214.939 mph. In addition to Andretti and Hunter-Reay, Jean Alesi also did not practice. 

Helio Fastest in Morning Practice

INDIANAPOLIS – Practice has been busy this morning – so much so that it’s been about impossible to get a clean lap.
Helio Castroneves set the new fastest lap of the month at 227.744 mph, receiving a tow from Bryan Clauson. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner had two other laps above 227, but each was aided by tows from James Jakes and Townsend Bell.
Similarly, Ana Beatriz’s lap of 226.187 mph received some help from Rubens Barrichello. 
Photo credit: Bret Kelley / Indianapolis Motor Speedway

We're Talking About Practice

INDIANAPOLIS - I'm trackside again today. Please check back throughout the day for reports. The weatherman on WXIN (the Indianapolis Fox affiliate) said there would be 100 percent sunny skies, and I would say that forecast looks accurate. Should be a great day. I'm headed down to Turn 1 to watch the morning practice session.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Andretti Favorite For Indy Pole

INDIANAPOLIS – Marco Andretti stamped himself as the favorite for the pole position when qualifying gets under way today for the Indianapolis 500.

The third-generation driver – grandson of Mario and son of Michael – posted the fastest speed of the month with a lap at 227.540 mph during the heat of Friday’s practice session. That lap is slightly faster than last year's pole speed when Alex Tagliani averaged 227.472 on his four-lap run.

“Why not try to go for the pole,” Andretti asked. “I’ve been working hard on the consistency for the four laps.”

Before his fastest lap, Andretti had a lap of 227.320 mph.

Andretti’s previous best start was seventh in 2008. An Andretti hasn’t been on the pole since Mario took the top spot in 1987 – about two months after Marco was born.

“(Winning the pole) would mean the world to me,” Andretti said. “I showed up this month to win the race, 100 percent. I still believe I could do it from 33rd, but if we could do it from first, it would be fantastic.”

Team Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe (226.835 mph) and Helio Castroneves (226.716 mph) were second and third, respectively, on the speed chart.

“(More speed) is in the car,” said Briscoe. “I think we’re up there, but I think Andretti’s team is heavy favorites for the pole and the race.”

Qualifying begins at 11 a.m. Eastern today, with 24 of the 33 spots being contested. The top nine qualifiers as of 4 p.m. enter a shootout to determine the pole winner.

The Andretti Autosport team looks poised to snag the lion’s share of shootout spots as three other Andretti drivers were in the top seven on Friday – Ryan Hunter-Reay (fourth fastest, 226.400 mph), James 
Hinchcliffe (sixth, 225.974 mph) and the surprising Ana Beatriz (seventh, 225.653 mph).

Beatriz, one of three women entered in this year’s 500, is a part-time driver with Andretti in the Izod IndyCar Series.

“Everybody is helping each other, so I’m pretty confident,” she said.

The top four speeds were turned in by Chevrolet-powered cars. Scott Dixon had the top Honda at 226.224 mph.

Been there, don’t want to do that: Rick Mears and Jimmy Vasser were asked if they’d like to take a spin in the new Indy cars. Each is satisfied to keep their driving uniforms in the closet.

“No, I haven’t (driven the new car), and I'm not going to, but my opinion is it's great. I've had all the fun I can handle,” said four-time winner Mears, who also sat on the pole a record six times.
Vasser, who had eight Indianapolis starts, echoed those thoughts.

“I don't think (the desire to drive) ever goes away,” he said. “But my racing days are behind me. I realize that.”

Start me up: Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, was the honorary starter. Appropriately, Bryan Clauson, which is sponsored by Angie’s List, was the first car out.

Dragon, Lotus at the bottom: The two remaining Lotus drivers – Jean Alesi and Simona de Silvestro – and the two former Lotus drivers – Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge (now with Chevrolet) – had the bottom four practice speeds on Friday.

Photo credit: Bret Kelley / Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Andretti Over 227

INDIANAPOLIS - Marco Andretti uncorked two laps over 227 mph - topping out at 227.540 mph - just ahead of the final hour of practice on Friday.

Andretti's lap is slightly faster than last year's pole speed when Alex Tagliani averaged 227.472 on his four-lap run.

Ana Beatriz continues to impress as her fast speed of 225.653 mph has her fifth on the day to this point.

Second is Ryan Hunter-Reay (226.227 mph), followed by Helio Castroneves (226.085) and James Hinchcliffe (225.974).

Should be an interesting and entertaining Happy Hour.

Hunter-Reay Leads Way

INDIANAPOLIS - It's still Andretti Autosport leading way during practice as of 1:40 p.m. Eastern, but a new driver is atop the leaderboard.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who struggled mightily last year in qualifying, has the new fast speed of the month at 226.227 mph.

Hunter-Reay was bumped last year and started only after taking over a car originally qualified by Bruno Junqueira, the 2002 pole winner.

James Hinchcliffe is next at 225.974, followed by Marco Andretti (225.916). 

Ana Beatriz, not a full-time member of the Andretti team, is fifth at 224.899. Three-time 500 winner Helio 
Castroneves is fourth quick at 225.083 mph.

Quick Random Thoughts

A few random items:
The crowd, while not overflowing by any means, is pretty decent by modern standards. Another section of stands along pit road was opened before 1 p.m.

Ana Beatriz had a little trouble parking her golf cart before her practice session. Not quite as bad as that part in "Austin Powers," but it took the Brazilian some forward and back stops and starts before she could trade her cart for a racer.

Pacer pride is in evidence as a few of the "Gold Swagger" shirts given away at Thursday's night's game were seen.

Andretti Autosport Leads the Way

Andretti Autosport has the top three cars during practice as of 12:38 p.m. Eastern time. Marco Andretti leads at 225.916 mph, followed by James Hinchcliffe at 225.062 mph and Ana Beatriz with 224.682 mph.

Today and Saturday the turbocharger boost has been increased, resulting in an additional 40-50 horsepower. 

Although Dave Calabro of the IMS public address system said that Andretti's lap came without benefit of a tow, it appeared Mike Conway was close enough to Andretti that it may have had an effect.

Andretti Fastest Early

INDIANAPOLIS - Marco Andretti uncorked the fastest lap of the week - 225.916 mph - during practice early on Friday. 
Last year's runner-up, J.R. Hildebrand, ran four laps in the high 223 mph bracket shortly after the track went green.

Marco Downplays Pole Possibilities

INDIANAPOLIS – Despite having the fastest speed in practice entering Fast Friday, Marco Andretti isn’t quite ready to anoint himself the favorite for the pole.
“I’d be happy with something in the top 10,” he said Friday morning during a media availability. “I’m off the pace compared with my teammates. I’ll be flat, I’ll tell you that.”
The third-generation driver set the pace with a lap of 223.676 mph on Wednesday. He did not run on Thursday.
Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indianapolis champion, is the only other driver above 223 (223.088 mph).
Andretti’s best Indianapolis 500 start is seventh in 2008.
Photo credit: Shawn Payne / Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Indy 500: Trackside at last

I'm out of the basement, off the couch and finally at the media center at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Please check back throughout the day for live reports. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Indianapolis 500 Commentary: Ads on the Walls

When I first read about sponsor logos on the outside walls at the north end of the track in today’s Indianapolis Star, my first inclination was to hop on my high horse. I wanted to gallop at a furious pace through the Internet, shouting about how the sanctity of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been violated, how the Indianapolis 500 continues to be NASCAR-ized and marginalized, how the month of May has been ruined, blah, blah, blah.

After giving the issue more thought, that high horse looks more like a Shetland pony.

Professional auto racing is a commercial endeavor. After all, problems usually arise from a lack of sponsors for a (pick one) driver, event or series, not the other way around.

Actually, sponsors and partners were “ghosted” into Indianapolis 500 telecasts more than a decade ago. Making those banners permanent and real was just the next step.

The purist in me is sorry to see this chapter in the history of IMS close; I’m sure more stuff will be pasted all around the facility’s 500-some acres in the coming days, weeks, years. It’s a sign of the times, so to speak, and from that standpoint it’s a little sad.

On the other hand, I remind myself that drivers in the Indianapolis 500 are trying to win the Borg-Warner Trophy – not the Indianapolis 500 Trophy – and have been since 1936.

Photo credit: Chris Owens/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Thoughts on Opening Day for the Indianapolis 500

A few quick thoughts on Saturday’s enjoyable opening day the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
1.) Kudos to ALL the drivers (and former drivers) for filling up my son’s autograph book.
2.) And a big thank you to Will Power for posing for a quick photo with Sean
3.) The crowd looked a little bigger this year, based on my unscientific observations. A decent number in the stands and quite a few folks mingling about behind the stands. Crowded is good.
4.) The three Penske cars in formation to open practice was a nice piece of showmanship.
5.) Given that drivers aren’t going to be practicing a ton on the first day, here’s a suggestion: Have everyone go out and do a parade lap (or laps) so the fans can see all the cars vying for spots in this year’s race at one time.
6.) It was good to see a wide variety of new diecast cars in the gift shops. Last year the selection was a bit skimpy early in the month. Getting cars in the hands of kids so they can play with them before the race is a great way to build excitement.
7.) One of those things you see only at Indy: Bobby Unser chauffeuring Rick Mears in a golf cart. That’s a combined 20 front-row starts, eight poles and seven wins at Indianapolis. So, yeah, might want to get out of the way.
8.) A corn dog and a tenderloin is a balanced meal, right?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Indianapolis 500 Commentary: What to Watch For

Not sure if I can get to 33 questions to ask this month / fortnight at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Maybe a manufacturer can step up and help me out if I run short. Anyway …
1.)     Can Will Power translate his season dominance into an Indianapolis 500 win? In four Indy starts, his best finish is fifth.
2.)     If he can get a Chevrolet, how big of a threat would Sebastien Bourdais be?
3.)     Can Bryan Herta Autosport win back to back?
4.)     How many times will J.R. Hildebrand be asked about last year’s finish?
5.)     Will Dario Franchitti wake up from his early season funk?
6.)     Which of the former winners has the best chance?
7.)     Which of the rookies has the best chance?
8.)     Which engine will have the most power?
9.)     Which will have the most durability?
10.)  Which will have the best fuel mileage?
11.)  Is Simon Pagenaud a serious contender?
12.)  Will Simona de Silvestro ever get a competitive car?
13.)  Can Marco Andretti put it all together?
14.)  Is Ryan Hunter-Reay the best driver at Andretti Autosport?
15.)  Or is that James Hinchcliffe?
16.)  Is Michel Jourdain really the last driver who drove a turbocharged engine in the Indianapolis 500?
17.)  An official, sanctioned and branded Snake Pit seems strange to me.
18.)  Will the return of turbocharged engines mean it will be possible to hear the “clack” when the cars cross the bricks again?
19.)  Can Graham Rahl put it all together?
20.)  Will anyone miss Danica Patrick?
21.)  How about Sam Hornish?
22.)  Does Ed Carpenter have a realistic chance at winning?
23.)  Or Townsend Bell?
24.)  Last year’s pole speed was 227+ mph. Can that be reached this year?
25.)  Is this Tony Kanaan’s year?
26.)  Why doesn’t Buddy Rice have a ride?
27.)  Can Oriol Servia start on the front row again?
28.)  Will A.J. Foyt have Tony Stewart wander around his garage on Bump Day to stir things up again?
29.)  How good is Josef  Newgarden?
30.)  Will there be any bumping this year?
31.)  Can Bryan Clauson restart the road to Indy for USAC drivers?
32.)  How competitive can Rubens Barrichello be?
33.)  Can Helio Castroneves win No. 4?
Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Indy 500 Thought of the Day: Opening Day

If you live in a baseball-crazed city, particularly in the Midwest or East, Opening Day is a big deal.

Optimism abounds. Fans see hope in the green grass and flowering plants after a long winter. The possibilities of spring and all that.

I wonder if Opening Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will ever create that vibe.

Last year, despite sunny skies and what one would assume to be a fair amount of anticipation around the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, the turnout was, well, tepid. To be fair, the action on the track – at least early on – was equally so. A few cars roared out after the first green flag dropped, took a few laps, then came in.

From a practical standpoint, the mileage limits on engines, restricted supply of tires and dearth of entries means a full week of practice is no longer necessary. Maybe open the track during the week and see if an even more condensed schedule ramps up the activity and therefore some excitement because, frankly, a quiet racetrack is a boring racetrack.

Another way to boost interest would be to have some sort of exhibition race during the week. This race would pit last year’s winners and pole winners in a 25-lap sprint using previous-generation chassis and unbranded engines. You’d need a sponsor to foot the bill for the equipment and the purse, but such a concept opens the door to invite drivers from other series to compete as well because it would be just a one-day commitment.

Back to reality. I’m eager to see the new cars and engines on the track. I just hope they’re out there early and often on Saturday.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Indy 500 Driver of the Day: Jigger Sirois

The story of Jigger Sirois is so often told that Donald Davidson declines to discuss it anymore on “Talk of Gasoline Alley.” For those not familiar with what may be the ultimate hard-luck story in Indianapolis 500 history, Jigger went out for a qualifying run on the first day of time trials in 1969. At the time, the pole winner was the fastest driver on the first day. Period.
Jigger’s crew waved off the run, thinking it was going to be too slow to make the race. Then it rained before anyone could go out and qualify.
The pole went down the drain, and so opened another chapter in Indianapolis 500 lore.
Jigger didn’t even qualify that year (as it turned out, if he had maintained his speed, he would have made the race) - or any other.
The driver who endures the toughest month of May is honored (if that’s the right word) with the Jigger award.
For most, that’s where the Jigger Sirois story ends. My good friend William LaDow sought to tell Jigger’s story beyond what happened on that fateful day more than 40 years ago. Please visit his website,, and  search “Jigger Sirois” or go to for this well-researched article.
Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Indy 500 Memory of the Day: The Goodyear Blimp

I miss seeing the Goodyear blimp during May. It usually arrived before Pole Day and of course was on hand during the race, meaning residents of Indianapolis had about a good two weeks of blimp watching. The engines of the blimp have a distinctive sound - similar to a lawnmower, but a little more “whiny.” During May here in Michigan when I hear what I think is that sound, I still gaze skyward, searching. Logically I know it’s a neighbor cutting his or her yard. I guess I’m hoping to see the Goodyear blimp floating majestically, another sign that 500 time is upon us.
Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Indy 500 DVD of the Day: The Big Wheel

Just like “A Christmas Story” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are required viewing during Christmas season, so too is “The Big Wheel” a May must-watch.
Starring Mickey Rooney (!) as a wannabe hotshoe determined to win the big dough at Indianapolis – even if it means “driving right over” fellow drivers – this black-and-white production is by turns corny, ridiculous and, yes, endearing.
You might even find yourself calling people “knothead” or “speedy” for a couple of days after watching.
Donald Davidson wrote what has to be the definitive piece on this cinematic masterpiece in the 1984 Carl Hungness yearbook. It’s definitely worth a read.
The movie is readily available from sources over the internet (Amazon, eBay, etc.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Indy 500 Good News of the Day: Jim Nabors

The news that Jim Nabors will sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” before this year’s race is music to my ears. Click here for the press release from IMS.
Photo credit: Dave Edelstein/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Indy 500 Commentary: 32 is Just a Number

I’m trying to be angry that it appears there won’t be a full 33-car field for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

I’m trying to be frustrated while comprehending the math that shows that three times as many engine manufacturers than last year actually means fewer engines.

I want to seethe, rant and shout.

Instead, I shrug, sigh and groan.

This is what happens when you’re kicked in the stomach too many times. You reach a point where it doesn’t hurt anymore.

I’m not interested in who the villains are behind all this nonsense or who’s to blame for ending up at a point where people would rather not compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. That winning the Indianapolis 500 is devalued to the point that it makes more sense – business or otherwise – to not try.

And that’s sad. From a practical standpoint, the Indianapolis 500 has survived two world wars, economic upheaval, disputes, changing tastes and everything else for the past 100 years. Having 32 starters this year matters little in the grand scheme of things. Yes, that last row, with only two cars, will look strange on the parade and pace laps. But 10-15 laps into the race – if not sooner – that missing starter will be forgotten as the drama of the day starts to unfold. Hey, it’s not as if 33 cars finish the race anyway.

So, no big deal, right?

Wrong. It’s the latest example of 500 traditions – like multiple weeks of practice, two weekends of qualifying - that have steadily eroded in the name of … progress? Reality? Necessity? Survival?

By the time you read this, maybe everything will be resolved and by race day there will be a full field. In any event, I’m eagerly anticipating  taking my 9-year-old son to the track next Saturday for opening day, watching him run down to the fence in the infield of Turn 2 to get a better look at the cars roaring by or eagerly pursuing drivers around Gasoline Alley or the motorhomes in search of autographs.

And I’ll wonder if someday he’ll have to explain to his son why there are only 28 cars in the Indianapolis 500. Or 26. Or …

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Indy 500 Program of the Day: Talk of Gasoline Alley

If Sid Collins is considered the all-time Voice of the 500 and Tom Carnegie the Voice of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then Donald Davidson surely is the Voice of May. One of the benefits of growing up in Indianapolis was being able to listen to Donald on WIBC each night as he recited all manner of fact obvious and arcane as well as minutiae connected to the Indianapolis 500.

When I lived in Springfield, Missouri, and would travel back to Indianapolis for the race or qualifying, I would seek out WIBC as I drove in on Interstate 70. Once I heard his familiar voice near the end of this (about) 500-mile trek – the signal usually picked up around Terre Haute – that’s when I started feeling I was back home again in Indiana (so to speak).

The advent of streaming radio means his program, The Talk of Gasoline Alley, can be heard around the world through starting Wednesday night from 8-9 p.m. Eastern, according to the program schedule. Though it’s still more than another week before the track opens, Donald’s stories are really what get the month of May started.
Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway