Thursday, May 23, 2013

Time for Andretti Jinx to End

INDIANAPOLIS - One-for-67. Or .015.

That’s the batting average, if you will, for anyone named Andretti in the Indianapolis 500. That’s Mario (1-for-29), sons Michael (0-for-16) and Jeff (0-for-3), nephew John (0-for-12) and grandson and current hope Marco (0-for-7).

It’s a slump for the record books. It’s even far below the so-called “Mendoza Line,” named for former shortstop Mario (!) Mendoza, who gained fame as a notoriously poor hitter – lifetime average of .215, with a few seasons quite a bit below that mark.

That’s not to say the Andretti family hasn’t knocked it at least to the warning track or had a few home runs taken away. For example:

·         Michael led the most laps at Indianapolis with never winning (431); by comparison, Rick Mears led 429 laps in racking up an unsurpassed four victories

·         Mario started from the pole and led 170 of the first 177 laps in 1987 before being sidelined by – what else? – mechanical failure

·         Michael led late in both the 1991 and 1992 races before being passed (1991) and having his car break down (1992)

·         Marco, depending on how you view the finish of the 2011 race, is the only person to be passed for the lead coming to the checkered flag

In the face of all these facts, it would seem prudent to pick someone other than an Andretti to win Sunday’s 97th Indianapolis 500.

Sunday’s race appears to be the most wide open in years. The fact that Ed Carpenter, with his own one-car team, won the pole underscores that.

Still, Andretti, who has his best Indy start at third, is the pick. He usually runs well at the Brickyard – he led the most laps in last year’s race (59) – and appears to have added a larger dose of maturity and a more professional approach to his craft this season.

“Indy has always been an ultimate goal of mine,” Andretti said earlier this month. “I think it's always been a realistic goal. So we just need to capitalize on it.

“Unfortunately I already have a similar record to dad, which is the most laps led for a non-winner. That part of it's frustrating.”

Other favorites

·         James Hinchcliffe: Winner of two races this season will use disappointing qualifying result as extra motivation

·         Ryan Hunter-Reay: Reigning series champion starting to figure out Indianapolis

·         Helio Castroneves: Three-time winner knows time is running out to get record-tying fourth Borg-Warner Trophy

·         Scott Dixon: The modern Al Unser: Consistent, smart and runs all day

Wouldn’t be a huge surprise

·         Ed Carpenter: Not satisfied with pole; wants victory, too

·         Dario Franchitti: Can’t discount him, but has been off since Indy triumph a year ago

·         Will Power: Fast in practice, has had bad luck on race day

·         Takuma Sato: A.J. Foyt’s best chance since Kenny Brack more than a decade ago

·         Tony Kanaan: Along with Carpenter is the people’s choice to win

Could happen, but would need some breaks

·         AJ Allmendinger: Fast car, but rookie at Indy

·         Graham Rahal: Miserable month but experienced team will help him race day

·         Justin Wilson: Good driver, but are team resources stretched too far?

·         Josef Newgarden: Has star potential, needs to show patience

·         J.R. Hildebrand: Is he the new Scott Goodyear/Roberto Guerrero/Kevin Cogan destined to be haunted by the one that got away?

·         Alex Tagliani: Solid driver and team

·         Ryan Briscoe: Has something to prove after losing IndyCar ride - again

·         E.J. Viso: Fast, but reputation of a crasher

Best of the rest

·         Oriol Servia: Solid veteran whose team likely to fold after the 500

·         Sebastien Bourdais: Former CART star hasn’t done much since split ended

·         Simona de Silvestro: Much expected of popular driver

·         Carlos Munoz: Rookie has been big surprise this month with No. 2 starting spot

·         Buddy Lazier: 1996 winner remains a fan favorite

·         Townsend Bell: Steady competitor

·         Simon Pagenaud: Going through sophomore slump after fine rookie season

Rounding out the field

·         James Jakes: Steadily improving driver

·         Conor Daly: Son of former IndyCar and Formula One driver Derek Daly

·         Charlie Kimball: Had some good runs last season

·         Sebastian Saavedra: Finished 20th and 26th in two previous starts

·         Katherine Legge: Nice job to get last-minute ride into field

·         Tristan Vautier: Rookie has shown promise

·         Ana Beatriz: Average finish of 22nd in three previous starts

·         Pippa Mann: Finished 20th in only other Indy start three years ago
Photo credit: Forrest Mellott/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Carpenter Surprise Indy Pole Winner

INDIANAPOLIS – Ed Carpenter beat both the most successful team in Indianapolis 500 history and the one that dominated practice this week to take the pole for the 97th Indianapolis 500 on Saturday.

Carpenter, an Indianapolis resident, Butler grad, stepson of former track president Tony George and who formed his own team, watched a couple of furious challenges fall short in the final moments of time trials to claim the top spot with a four-lap average of 228.762 mph in his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Dallara-Chevrolet.

“It’s an honor to win this pole – this is such a competitive field,” Carpenter said. “I hope this is a part one of a magical month. This is awesome, bigger than our wins and huge for our team. It’s definitely a landmark day.”

Carpenter’s best previous Indianapolis start was eighth in 2010 and 2011.

In a day delayed by rain that pushed qualifying past the usual 6 p.m. EST close, the full roster of drivers for Team Penske and Andretti Autosport – plus Carpenter – made up the Fast Nine shootout that concluded Saturday’s first day of qualifying.

Team Penske’s Will Power had the fastest speed in the first segment of qualifying. The order is inverted for the Fast Nine shootout; therefore Power had the last chance to oust Carpenter from the top spot.  After opening with a promising lap of 229.119 mph, Power faded to a four-lap average of 228.087 to settle for sixth starting position.

Team Penske was looking to add to its record of 17 poles at Indianapolis to go along with a record 15 race victories.

Rookie Carlos Munoz continued his amazing week to claim the second starting position at 228.342 mph. Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti claimed the other front-row starting spot with an average of 228.261 mph.

One of IndyCar’s perennial powerhouses, Target Chip Ganassi, had a less-than-stellar qualifying effort.

Former Indy 500 and series champions Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti will start next to each other in the sixth row – spots 16th and 17th, respectively. Franchitti won last year’s 500 from 16th.

Six cars were bumped out of the top 24 after the first round of qualifying, including Ryan Briscoe, last year’s pole-sitter.  Briscoe, now with a Ganassi satellite team, bumped his way back in and will start 23rd.

Rain cut into the morning practice period, then delayed the start of qualifying until just before 1:30 p.m. EST.

The final nine positions of the 33-car field need to be filled in today’s final day of qualifying. The slowest qualifier then is bumped. Each car is allowed three attempts per day.

Among those vying for the final nine spots will be Katherine Legge, who will drive one of the Dallara-Hondas affiliated with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. It will be renumbered No. 81.

Legge, 22nd in her Indianapolis 500 debut last year, could get a shot at redemption today. She was bounced out of her ride with Dragon Racing after last season in favor of Sebastian Saavedra, who also needs to qualify today.

Others looking to secure a spot are Graham Rahal, Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz, Michel Jourdain, 1996 champ Buddy Lazier, Tristan Vautier, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, the last driver bumped on Saturday.
Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway


Quick Thoughts After First Part of Qualifying

INDIANAPOLIS - Some observations after the first round of qualifying for the 97th Indianapolis 500:

·         Rookie Carlos Munoz may be the least-known driver and biggest surprise in the field. Added to the Andretti Autosport team for Indianapolis after finishing fifth in the Indy Lights series for Andretti last year, Munoz was third after the first round of qualifying with a four-lap average of 228.171 mph.

·         All five Andretti Autosport drivers made the provisional Fast Nine

·         All three Team Penske drivers made the provisional Fast Nine, led by Will Power

·         James Jakes had his run disallowed after his car flunked tech inspection. His average of 225.397 mph would’ve been good enough for 23rd after the first round of qualifying.

·         The Fast Nine qualifiers will get one attempt when the session begins at 6:30 p.m.

 Photo credit: Forrest Mellott/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Hinchcliffe Fails to Dislodge Allmendinger

Seven qualifiers so far – track has gone yellow after Conor Daly waved off. AJ Allmendinger still fastest at 227.761 mph. James Hinchcliffe started his run at 228.131 mph, then dropped about a half mile an hour on each succeeding lap to finish at 227.493 mph, second to Allmendinger.

Allmendinger Sets Early Pace

INDIANAPOLIS - Rookie AJ Allmendinger of Team Penske is the fastest of five qualifiers so far with a four-lap average of 227.761 mph. Called “Junior” by his Penske teammates, Allmendinger  won five races when he competed in CART before heading to NASCAR.

About to Get Started

INDIANAPOLIS – Looks like we’re about to get started. The rain-condensed schedule makes it likely that each car will get one shot only before the nine-car shootout is established at 4 p.m.

Scott Dixon is first in line.
Photo credit: Forrest Mellott/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Legge Reportedly Gets Ride

Katherine Legge, who was bounced out of her ride with Dragon Racing after last season in favor of Sebastian Saavedra, reportedly will drive one of the Dallara-Hondas affiliated with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star tweeted that Legge has been confirmed for the ride.
Legge finished 22nd in her Indianapolis 500 debut last year.
Photo credit: Chris Owens/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Quick Thoughts About Practice

INDIANAPOLIS – A few observations about morning practice:

·         In addition to his 229.808 mph lap, Will Power earlier put together four laps consistently at above 226 mph, all alone

·         After struggling all week, Graham Rahal found some speed

·         Townsend Bell turned just five laps, topping out at 226.553 mph

·         Pretty light crowd in the stands; overcast skies a likely deterrent

·         Car No. 40 – as yet unassigned – drew the No. 1 spot in the qualifying order

·         Scott Dixon is second, followed by Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal
Photo credit: Forrest Mellott/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Back Green at Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS - Rain interrupted practice, but the green flag is back out.
The top five this morning are:
Will Power, 229.808 mph
AJ Allmendinger, 229.086 mph
Josef Newgarden, 228.609 mph
Graham Rahal, 228.318 mph
Simon Pagenaud, 228.029 mph
None of the Andretti Autosport cars have practiced yet.

Power Nears 230 mph

Welcome back, Team Penske.

Will Power and AJ Allmendinger led practice Saturday morning ahead of qualifying for the 97th Indianapolis 500.

Power pushed his No. 12 Verizon Dallara-Chevrolet to 229.808, just short of the first 230 mph lap at the Speedway in 10 years. Allmendinger, in the No. 2 Izod Dallara-Chevrolet, was just behind at 229.086 mph.  Allmendinger benefited greatly from a tow from Buddy Lazier on his lap.
None of the Andretti Autosport cars have practiced yet. Andretti dominated practice during the week.

Photo credit: Forrest Mellott/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Friday, May 17, 2013

Andretti Team Continues To Show Muscle

INDIANAPOLIS – Rain or shine, Andretti Autosport emphatically stamped itself as the favorite to win the pole during qualifying today for the 97th Indianapolis 500.

A fierce mid-afternoon storm cut short Friday’s practice session by about three hours. Just about an hour after the track opened, E.J. Viso cut a tow-aided lap of 229.537 mph, fastest of the month.

The Venezuelan, seeking his sixth 500 start, became the fourth member of the five-driver Andretti Autosport team to be the fastest in a session.

Viso joined Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and rookie Carlos Munoz – who turned the trick twice this week – in heading the daily speed charts.  Andretti drivers have topped five of the seven practice days.

The turbocharger boost was increased for Friday and today, adding about 40 horsepower to the Chevrolet twin-turbocharged V6 and Honda single-turbo V6 engines.

In terms of speed, this change translated into an increase of about four mph - Munoz had the previous top lap at 225.163 mph on Thursday.

“We went little by little, step by step, trimming the car one step at a time,” said Viso, whose best Indy start was ninth last year. “Every day we’ve been on the track and testing a number of pieces on the car.”

Andretti was second fast on Friday at 228.754 mph, followed by Munoz at 228.520 mph.

“I think as a team we’re quite comfortable with our speeds,” said Andretti, who indicated that a 230-mph lap – the first in a decade - was possible had not rain halted practice. “I think there are five of us in the running for the pole, but as far as favorite – there are going to be a lot of factors (today).”

The “slow poke” on the Andretti team is reigning IndyCar series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, who started third in last year’s 500 and has a best lap of 226.919 mph.

Last year’s pole speed was 226.484 mph by Ryan Briscoe, then driving for Penske, in the first year of the new equipment package for the IndyCar series.

Perennial favorites Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi continue to lag, which has been a theme this season.

Penske’s Will Power, runner-up in the series championship the past couple of season, has the best lap of the bunch at 228.401 mph. Teammate Helio Castroneves, a four-time pole winner and three-time champion, had a best lap of 226.988 mph on Friday.

Defending 500 champion Dario Franchitti led the Ganassi team at 227.080 mph, with Scott Dixon, the 2008 pole-sitter and race winner, at 226.162 mph.

Qualifying begins at 11 a.m. EST today with the first 24 positions of the 33-car field available. The top nine qualifiers as of 4 p.m. will participate in a 90-minute shootout to determine the pole position winner and the rest of the first nine spots.
Photo credit: Chris Jones/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Sunoco Rides Again at Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s nice to see a Sunoco car on the track again.

Townsend Bell, who has had some solid performances in recent years at Indianapolis as a one-off participant, made steady progress this week in his No. 60 Chevrolet-powered machine, which also carries sponsorship for the movie “Turbo.”

Bell, who finished fourth in 2009, had a lap of 227.160 mph on Friday, eight-best of the day.

Sunoco was the primary sponsor of Roger Penske’s cars when the most successful Indianapolis 500 owner in history started entering cars in 1969. The last year of Penske’s association with Sunoco as a major sponsor at Indianapolis was in 1973 when he entered cars for defending winner Mark Donohue, Gary Bettenhausen and stock car star Bobby Allison.

Bell’s car is mainly yellow with blue trim. The Penske Sunoco machines were predominantly blue with orange or yellow trim.

Penske, Ganassi still quiet: The 2013 IndyCar season has been disappointing so far for perennial powerhouses Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. That trend has continued this week as Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon have been out of the headlines for the most part.

It seems inconceivable that these two teams, which have combined to win five of the last seven Indianapolis 500s, will remain out of the picture during qualifying for the pole today. Power has the fourth-best lap of the month at 228.401 mph.

Hey, Buddy: Buddy Lazier started on his refresher test on Friday morning before the track opened. The 1996 champion last competed in 2008, finishing 17th. He failed to qualify in 2009, so this is Lazier’s debut in the new equipment package, which debuted last year.

“The car feels incredibly good,” Lazier said. “I like this package.”

Daly game: The rain prevented rookie Conor Daly, who crashed heavily on Thursday, from shaking down his repaired A.J. Foyt Racing car.

“A.J. just had us fix the car straight up,” said Larry Curry, the team’s race strategist. “We did not go out and take apart the backup car that is out in the truck to put parts on this one.”

Daly was the only one of the 33 drivers assigned to cars not on track Friday.
Photo credit: Chris Jones/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Predicting This Year's Indianapolis 500 Field

INDIANAPOLIS – I’ve always marveled at the college basketball writers who take a stab at picking the field for the 68-team NCAA Tournament.

 In that spirit, here’s my attempt at picking this year’s Indianapolis 500 field:

Row 1
James Hinchcliffe
Helio Castroneves
Dario Franchitti
Row 2
Marco Andretti
Scott Dixon
Ryan Hunter-Reay
Row 3
Ed Carpenter
Will Power
Ryan Briscoe
Row 4
E.J. Viso
Townsend Bell
J.R. Hildebrand
Row 5
Carlos Munoz
Josef Newgarden
Takuma Sato
Row 6
Alex Tagliani
Justin Wilson
A.J. Allmendinger
Row 7
Simon Pagenaud
Oriol Servia
Tony Kanaan
Row 8
Graham Rahal
Conor Daly
Charlie Kimball
Row 9
Sebastien Bourdais
James Jakes
Simona de Silvestro
Row 10
Sebastian Saavedra
Michel Jourdain Jr.
Tristan Vautier
Row 11
Ana Beatriz
Buddy Lazier
Pippa Mann

This is basically a quick, from-the-gut prediction based on what’s happened this week.

As always, expect some surprises on Saturday, especially in light of Fast Friday’s “Happy Hour” getting washed out. Should make for an interesting practice session on Saturday morning.
Photo credit: Walter Kuhn/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Indianapolis 500 Memory: Mansell Mania

One of the more interesting events I covered in my nearly 20 years as a sports writer and editor was in 1993 when Nigel Mansell was a rookie at Indianapolis.

To put things in perspective, here’s a bit of context:

·         The Indianapolis 500 was still the only event at IMS – no Brickyard 400, no U.S. Grand Prix, no MotoGP, no Freedom 100, no Nationwide race, Porsche Cup, etc. The first Brickyard 400 had been announced about a month before the track opened, but the inaugural event was still more than a year away

·         The prelude to the 500 was still basically a month – two weeks of practice, four days of qualifying spread over two weekends

·         A healthy entry list meant no worries about a 33-car starting grid. The competition was so tough that Bobby Rahal, the reigning series champion and 1986 500 winner, was bumped

·         Interest in the 500 – nationally and worldwide - was perhaps at its high point. Basically every paper in Indiana staffed at least Pole Day and the race. I worked at the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, a paper with a circulation of 15,000 in mid-north Indiana, and I spent the entire first week of practice and Pole Day trackside, filing daily stories and gathering information to produce a special race preview section

·         Papers all around the Midwest and the country did the same – the 500 was that important. It was a major sporting event on par with the Super Bowl, Masters, World Series, Kentucky Derby and so forth

·         Adding Mansell – the reigning World Champion - to the mix brought in a healthy dose of international media. So much so that IMS was compelled to add to its press facilities

·         This press facility was NOT the nice one just north of the Pagoda. This was a one-level semi-baracks building behind the stands at the south end of the main straight. Unlike today, there was no food service. Hungry and on deadline? Go buy a hot dog and run back to your RadioShack TRS-80. Or bring a sack lunch. (I did a little of both.)

·         No real assigned seating – you just found a spot among the long tables and hoped that some big shot from the Chicago Tribune wasn’t used to sitting there. On Pole Day and especially Race Day, you were in close quarters, with someone on either side and directly across from you. It was so cramped that once the great Jim Murray yelled at me to get away from one of the monitors because he couldn’t see. (There were about four of them for 200-plus journalists.)

·         Also, not only was smoking allowed, it was in many ways encouraged as reps from the cigarette companies would come through and pass out samples

Anyway, back to Mansell. As has been recounted, Indianapolis was to be his first oval because he missed Phoenix (remember how that race was a bit of a prelude to Indianapolis?) because he spun and violently backed into the wall, resulting in a hole to the wall and Mansell’s lower back.

Still on the mend, Mansell didn’t get on track until Wednesday of that week – following an entertaining press conference that referenced golf balls (not the kind found on a golf course) and an impression of A.J. Foyt  (“Just watch it, boy” – you have to imagine an Englishman trying to sound like a Texan – I might still have the cassette tape of this somewhere).

As Mansell and car headed out to the pits, the press followed pied-piper style. Thank goodness ace PR man Michael Knight (I recommend his blog) was there with his bullhorn (yes, really) to maintain some semblance of order.

Mansell was THE story of the month, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of the reigning Indy standouts like Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr., Arie Luyendyk, and, say, Mansell’s teammate, one Mario Andretti. He was accessible, charming and affable – which all the blokes from the European press corps said he most definitely was not.

After qualifying a big lower than was expected, Mansell had an excellent chance of winning the race before being passed by eventual winner Fittipaldi and Luyendyk in the late stages to settle for third.

Phoenix notwithstanding, Indianapolis was the only oval Mansell did not win as he cruised to the series championship, clinching with one race to go. His other victories came at Milwaukee, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nazareth.

Alas, Mansell Mania was fleeting. About a year later, the top results disappeared and the moody Mansell returned – and returned to the grand prix circuit for what turned out to be an ignominious ending to a sterling career.

In addition to elevating IndyCar interest globally, Mansell’s arrival also temporarily obscured some storm clouds on the horizon.
In particular, the subject of one Jeff Gordon came up more than once during the month, with the question being:  Shouldn’t we be concerned that this American talent, who cut his teeth on the short tracks around the Midwest and has developed a solid fan base, was forced to abandon his hopes for an IndyCar ride because he didn’t have a big enough checkbook and instead is now pursuing what looks to be a promising career in NASCAR?

The general answer: Who cares about this Jeff Gordon guy? We’ve got Nigel Mansell, and he’s the best-known driver in the world. NASCAR can have all the Jeff Gordons it wants.

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway