Saturday, March 23, 2013

2013 IndyCar Season Wish List

Photo credit: Chris Owens/Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The first race of the IndyCar season is here. Of course, leave it to IndyCar to pick the same weekend as the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament to finally get going. Credit to the Detroit Free Press and writer Mike Brudenell for a nice season preview in Friday’s edition – they found room in a section that was understandably dominated by NCAA coverage of both Michigan State and Michigan playing at Auburn Hills.

Here are some things I hope to see this season:

1.) Activation, Activation, Activation. I want to see series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay staring at me from a display of Sun Drop all spring, summer and fall. And is there any particular reason why Target wants to keep Dario Franchitti’s Indianapolis 500 win a secret? As always, the series is wringing its hands about ways to reach new fans and how critical this is to growth. Here’s an idea: Let. People. Know. About. Your. Drivers.

Last summer, I bought a 12-pack of RC Cola with Marco Andretti on the side; ditto some cereal with Scott Dixon and Franchitti. But that’s about all I’ve seen. Maybe if Detroit had a race, you would see more activation in stores. Oh, right.

2.) Product, Product, Product. Related to the above, I want to see IndyCar SOMETHING in stores. Diecasts. Shirts. Hats. Handkerchiefs. I’m talking to you Meijer and Target. Please.

3.) Rivalries, Rivalries, Rivalries. For the past 10 years or so, rivalry in the IndyCar series has been team-based: Penske vs. Ganassi for the most part, with a bit of Andretti sprinkled in here and there. Everyone has been holding their breath until they’re blue in the face waiting for something between Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal to develop. At this point, frankly, our faces are more blue than a Smurf after eating a blueberry pie.

4.) Turbo, Turbo, Turbo. As in the new movie from DreamWorks about a snail who competes in the Indianapolis 500. (I’m sure we all have our own jokes about this: “Hey, this sounds like the year XXXX when XXXX XXXX was in the 500.” Because this is the start of the season and we all should be optimistic, I’m not going to fill in the blanks today.)

I’m not sure what, if anything, “Days of Thunder” had to do with spurring national interest in NASCAR in the early 1990s (I would give most of that credit to then-new phenom Jeff Gordon, with perhaps some to the Brickyard 400), but it didn’t hurt, either.

Today, of course, when you mention racing to the average American, it is defined by NASCAR. If a new generation can start to at least consider IndyCar as an alternative, “Turbo” will have helped. You can learn more about the movie, arriving in theaters July 19, HERE

5.) Two for four. I really hope the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has some sort of plan to draw attention to Helio Castroneves and Franchitti trying to become four-time winners this May. Like Hunter-Reay’s championship, this obvious storyline has been kept under wraps for some reason.

Instead, fans were “treated” to an off-season about findings from a consultant group, a tax break/enterprise zone around the track and, oh yes, yet another IndyCar leader who was black-flagged.

Still, spring is here – even if springlike weather is still in the garage. (Maybe it was sequestered.) Here’s to a good season.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

IndyCar Memories: 1993 Opener

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
We still have a week to go before the IndyCar season (finally!) gets under way with the race at St. Petersburg.

Twenty years ago, almost to the date, the season started in Australia with the reigning world champion, Nigel Mansell, joining the circuit.

For 1993, Formula One and IndyCar essentially “traded” top drivers as Michael Andretti, series runner-up to Bobby Rahal in 1992, left Newman-Haas for McLaren.

Andretti, to say the least, had a difficult season overseas. Mansell, on the other hand, jumped into Andretti’s Lola-Ford and won the IndyCar championship in dominating fashion – clinching the title with one race left in the season. For a week, he was simultaneously the Formula One and IndyCar champion.

Mansell won the season-opening race at Surfers Paradise, in part by taking advantage of a stop-and-go penalty to make a fuel stop. A cagey move, and one that was outlawed soon thereafter.

In May, I’ll revisit Mansell at the Indianapolis 500, which was one of the most interesting stories I ever covered during my sports-writing days.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

1995: When Subway was in IndyCar

Last week when Carl Edwards won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix (in a Subway-sponsored car, no less – probably just one of those NASCAR coincidences), it got me thinking about back when Subway sponsored an Indy car.

Behold the No. 99 (same as Edwards’ number) of Dean Hall. This diecast is from 1995; unfortunately Dean failed to make the Indianapolis 500 that year. In fact, his attempt at the Brickyard may well have been his last appearance in Indy car period. The 1995-96 Autocourse yearbook shows no other appearances for him the rest of the season, citing evaporation of sponsorship. Who knows, maybe Jared and his size-62 pants had something to do with it.

What I’d really like to know is the story behind this sponsorship. How’d he land it? It wasn’t like Hall was a household name – he made his only start at Indianapolis in 1990, finishing 17th driving for Dale Coyne. By 1995 Hall was with Dick Simon, who more often than not got his cars into the field. Just not this time.

At least he was in good company – Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi also famously failed to quality that year as well.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Indianapolis 500 Memories: 1981, Part Two

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
While the selection of engines was not nearly as diverse as chassis for the 1981 Indianapolis 500 – just about everybody had a Cosworth – there was one notable challenger.

That would be the Pepsi Challenger of Mike Mosley. This Dan Gurney Eagle was quite narrow at the front before fanning out wide at the rear. With its bright yellow paint scheme trimmed in white, it looked like a lawn dart (if you remember those) hurtling down the straightaway.

And then there was the sound of the Chevrolet engine. Loud. Really loud. You knew when this car was on the track – no matter where you were. The Cosworths had a higher-pitched whine or shriek while the Chevrolets had a distinctive deep roar. Instead of investing in aero kits, maybe something could be done to the engine noise of today's Hondas and Chevrolets to make them more distinctive.

Mike started second in his penultimate Indianapolis 500 appearance and, befitting his usual foul luck at the Brickyard, finished last after mechanical failure.

The story goes that he blew his race engine during practice. According to Carl Hungness’ 1981 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook: “Two weeks after this year’s 500 he went to Milwaukee with the engine intended for Indianapolis and won the race from last place.”

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Indianapolis 500 Memories: 1981, Part One

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The 1981 Indianapolis 500 is remembered mainly for the months-long dispute over who actually won the race – Bobby Unser, who took the checkered flag, then was penalized a lap for passing cars under the yellow; or Mario Andretti, who initially finished second then was elevated to the top spot.


Unser, of course, ended up being declared the winner, officially becoming the first to win the 500 in three different decades.


In thumbing through the Carl Hungness yearbook recently, something else struck me: The diversity in both chassis and engine in that year’s starting lineup. The top six, for example, featured six different combinations. Here's a look at the field:


Bobby Unser, Bill Alsup, Rick Mears
Penske’s team car
Wildcat VIII
Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Dennis Firestone, Gordon Smiley
Patrick Racing’s “house” cat
Vern Schuppan, Tony Bettenhausen
McLaren left Indy racing after the 1979 season
Kevin Cogan
I think this was the last Sugaripe Prune car
Geoff Brabham, Josele Garza
Garza was very popular his rookie year
Longhorn LR-01
Sheldon Kinser
Memorable paint scheme
Steve Krisiloff, Michael Chandler, Larry Dickson, Bob Lazier, Tom Bigelow, Pete Halsmer, Pancho Carter
First ground-effects car from Penske
A.J. Foyt
Started on the front row
Tim Richmond
Richmond’s last Indianapolis 500
Jerry Karl
Nose is the only thing that looks McLaren in my opinion; the rest represents the hard-working Karl’s efforts to create a pseudo ground-effects car. Kudos for getting it into the field
Scott Brayton
First 500 for Brayton
Longhorn LR-02
Al Unser
Al Jr. was still a couple of years away from his Indy debut
Don Whittington, Bill Whittington, Tom Sneva
First appearance for this make, which would be a strong contender the rest of the decade
Gary Bettenhausen
Listed as Janet Guthrie’s car from 1980
Danny Ongais
Ongais was badly injured in a crash during the race
Schkee DB-4
Tom Klausler
I remember this car being VERY loud
Johnny Rutherford
Finished 32nd after winning the year before; in 1977, Lone Star JR was last after winning in 1976
Mike Mosley
Loved this car; more on it later