Tuesday, December 30, 2014

1979: Year of the Original Split

Today we have a couple of artifacts from the original open-wheel split of 1979. Specifically, programs from the first CART and USAC races of that season at Phoenix International Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway, respectively.

The covers themselves tell the story of what each group offered.

CART had the top drivers, with the notable exception of one A.J. Foyt Jr. of Houston, Texas. As such, Gordon Johncock, winner of the previous Jimmy Bryan 150 and at the time a Phoenix resident, is featured.

USAC offered, uh, plenty of seats. Actually, USAC offered  a superstar driver (Foyt ), some other respected veterans and former winners (including Gary Bettenhausen, Roger McCluskey, Jim McElreath and Billy Vukovich) and, most importantly, the Indianapolis 500.

The welcome note from Ray Smartis, general manager for Ontario, hoped for a quick end to the open-wheel civil war:

“Regretfully, some of the prominent drivers you have been used to seeing at OMS are not competing in today’s event because of a current dispute between some of the teams and the U.S. Auto Club.

“We have been working continuously to help heal that breach and we sincerely believe that it will be healed soon. In the meantime, we also believe that today’s race will be every bit as competitive and exciting as you have come to expect for a major contest here at OMS, and we shall continue our dedicated efforts towards the good of all racing.”

A USAC stock car race also was on the bill. Foyt dominated in winning both races.

A couple of drivers who would become stars in NASCAR were in the stock car event: Rusty Wallace, who finished fourth, and Mark Martin, who was 28th.

Ontario Motor Speedway, a sort of idealized version of IMS, closed in 1980 after a mere decade of operation. OMS switched back to CART for its 500-mile race that summer and for its last one the next year.

Phoenix continued as an open-wheel home for many years, some seasons offering both spring and fall events. Interestingly, it broke ties with CART and aligned with the upstart Indy Racing League/USAC for 1996.

Dwindling attendance, however, soon became a huge issue as the “second split” proved disastrous for, well, everyone.  It’s now been nearly 10 years since Phoenix played host to an IndyCar event. Even now with a unified series, a return in the near future seems unlikely.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving - The Next Indianapolis 500 is Halfway Here

Thanksgiving, of course, is a wonderful holiday. Family, food and football – not necessarily in that order - all take center stage.

To an Indianapolis 500 fan, however, Thanksgiving is especially important because it marks the halfway point (more or less) between the previous 500 and the next one. So go ahead and use your turkey drumsticks to make the crossed-flags signal to let everyone at the table know.

Still, the offseason still has a ways to go. Which makes it an ideal time to pull out your old yearbooks, DVDs or programs.

Here’s the program  from my first Indianapolis 500 in 1973 –  I ended up going on the third day of the ill-fated event.

The cover is a bit worse for wear. (Can’t you just hear Dr. Evil saying, “One MEEEELLION Dollars,” though?)

The inside is a bit battered as well – four pages are missing altogether.

That’s because in those days there was a spread showing the top 10 finishers from the year before. So I had my mother very patiently cut out all 10 cars so I could race them on my oval rug – no fancy diecasts back then.

As you can see, I also did my best to keep the entry list accurate and up to date. Not bad for a 5-year-old.

Unlike today, the entry list was overflowing.

I counted 83 entries for 1973. Of course, most of these were backup cars and others had no realistic hope of making the race. One – the Jim Robbins Co. No. 87 – was entered per Mr. Robbins’ will.

I eventually bought a complete 1973 program from the now-closed Mailroom on 16th Street.

The thought of throwing out the original never crossed my mind – and never will.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Indy Item of the Day: Old Trading Cards

Here are Dale Coyne and Chip Ganassi from the 1985 A&S Racing Collectables set. (Yes, that's how these folks spelled it.)

Who would've guessed that midway through the season that Coyne's team would have more wins than the mighty Ganassi outfit?

Chip could probably use an Old Milwaukee or three right about now. Looks like he's talking to Scott Brayton, but I can't be sure.

I have no idea where Coyne is in this photo.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Indy 500 Item of the Day: Special Sections

As a former newspaperman (nearly 20 years, most as a sports editor), it pains me to see this vital component of the American fabric continue to dwindle in importance.

Today’s newspapers are smaller – both in size and amount of news – as publishers push content toward digital platforms. Good old newsprint is slowly vanishing.

I was probably about 7 years old when I read my first newspaper: The Indianapolis News, the Circle City’s afternoon paper.

Not surprisingly, I started with the comics, but soon gravitated toward the sports section. Often to my father’s chagrin, who would be fruitlessly searching for the section after dinner.

It was safely upstairs as I pored over the latest on the Pacers, Racers (old WHA team), Indians and so forth.

Of course, one of the dominant beats in The News was the Indianapolis 500.

Which brings us to its annual special section on the race.

Once the race was permanently moved to the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, this section came out on the Friday before the race.

In addition to features, the race lineup (with headshots and qualifying speeds), the scorecard (when was the last time you saw one of those in the Star?) and recaps from the month, the highlight for me was Wayne Fuson’s Form Chart.

Fuson was the sports editor of The News. He wrote about a three-sentence summary of each driver’s chances, complete with odds, in a lively, staccato style that borrowed heavily from horse-racing parlance.

Here’s an example from the 1981 section pictured above. This is for Bobby Unser, Fuson’s favorite at 2-1:

Jockey would like nothing more than to match brother Al’s three victories. Bobby is starting in the front row for the ninth time. He’s gone the distance only three times in 18 previous races. Don’t let the field go to the post without a sizeable wager.

A great, fun read. And only 253 characters – a bit longer than a Tweet.

The Indianapolis News ceased publication on Oct. 1, 1999, the victim of a long, relentless trend of reading habits shifting away from afternoon newspapers. Mr. Fuson had passed away almost three years earlier to the day at 71.

These sections pop up on eBay from time to time, so I’ve been able to grab a few. Each time I’m lucky enough to nab one, I always read the Form Chart first.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Indy 500 Memorabilia: Salt Walther Media Guides

This set of Salt Walther media guides from 1975, ’76 and ’78 caught my eye a few weeks ago. The one from 1975 is signed by Salt.

Anyone who even remotely knows anything about the Indianapolis 500 knows who Salt Walther is and his horrific accident at the start of the 1973 race.  The 1976 guide has three photos from the crash.

Certainly his No. 77 Dayton-Walther blue McLarens were well-known throughout the ‘70s. The team itself started fielding cars in 1955 with Elmer George (Tony’s father) at the wheel. He failed to qualify.

After being away from Indianapolis for a decade, Salt attempted a comeback  in 1990. Despite running an older-model car, he squeezed into the field late on the final day of qualifying only to be bumped out just before the final gun. (Remember when qualifying for the 500 had actual drama like that?)

He tried again the following year and again fell just short on the final day.

That was his final appearance at Indianapolis. Walther died Dec. 27, 2012.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Hunter-Reay Had Bumpy Road to Indy Glory

Much has been of Ryan Hunter-Reay being the first American winner of the Indianapolis 500 since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

While I don’t discount the potential of Hunter-Reay’s nationality to drive more interest in IndyCar racing, what’s more interesting – and a little scary – is perhaps how close the Floridian came to ending up in sports cars or NASCAR.

More than a few times during Hunter-Reay’s open-wheel career - which goes back to 2003 - it appeared that his results and talent weren’t going to keep him in a seat.

That has been a familiar problem in open-wheel racing long before the split. In Hunter-Reay’s case, though, thankfully various teams stepped up to keep his career going.

Hunter-Reay notched wins in his first two years in Champ Car at Australia and Milwaukee driving for American Spirit Team Johansson and Herdez Competition, respectively.

He then spent a lost year with Rocketsports Racing in 2005 (that’s three teams in three years), and it appeared his open-wheel career was at best at a crossroads, if not over completely.

He made no open-wheel starts in 2006, spending the year driving in the Rolex Sports Car Series with an eye toward a possible career in NASCAR as Hendrick put together a driver-development program for him.

Rahal Letterman Racing deserves a ton of credit for getting Hunter-Reay back into the IndyCar community with a partial season in 2007, followed by a full-season program in 2008 that included winning Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500.

Rahal Letterman was heavily backed by the ethanol industry at that time, though, and once that dried up, Hunter-Reay was looking for work again.

This time the two stalwarts of the Indy Racing League- Tony George and A.J. Foyt – kept Hunter-Reay racing in 2009. Andretti Autosport picked him up for 2010.When Hunter-Reay failed to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500, the team bought Bruno Junqueira’s mount from Foyt to get him in the field.

Hunter-Reay rewarded that investment with a win later in the season, the series championship in 2012 and last week’s win in the 500.

Hopefully other American drivers will get the same type of support. Is J.R. Hildebrand, for example, capable of producing results like Hunter-Reay if he’s given some stability? Sage Karam is another American who turned heads in May – will he get the support he needs?

The American talent is there; teams just need to invest in it.

Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Power Will Win - Maybe

INDIANAPOLIS – Winning the Indianapolis 500 is obviously the goal of every driver in the 33-car lineup.

Leading the Indianapolis 500? No thanks.

“(Leading) punches such a big hole that no one really wants to lead,” said Will Power, who starts on the outside of the front row, considered the ideal spot for jumping into the lead at the start of the race. “If you’re leading, you’re burning fuel, doing yourself no good.”

Last year, identical chassis paired with evenly matched engines bred pack racing, a record 68 lead changes and the fastest race in history (187.433 mph average).

This year’s lineup is the fastest (229.382 mph average) and the closest in terms of time (2.1509 seconds between the fastest and slowest qualifier).

So, likely more of the same this year – entertaining for the fans and frustrating for the drivers.

The first six spots are represented by three Chevrolets and three Hondas, offering evidence of the continuing parity.

“It’s created this whole pack where you have to really understand how to run very close to cars because that’s what you’ll be doing all day no matter where you are in the field,” Power said.

“You can’t get away.”

Power believes his Verizon Team Penske crew has his Dallara/Chevrolet better balanced for traffic this year. If so, watch out.

The series points leader always has been stout on road and street courses. After winning last year’s season-finale at Fontana – after starting on the pole – the Australian now has the confidence he can be victorious on a big oval as well.

Here’s a look at the rest of the field:

Other top contenders
Helio Castroneves – Three-time winner always steady and consistent. Retro Pennzoil livery – right down to the driver’s suit and helmet – has been popular this month.
Ed Carpenter – Back-to-back pole winner would be a popular champion. He led the most laps last year before settling for 10th.
Simon Pagenaud – Winner of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis can do the double with a win in the 500. Unknown when he joined the series full-time two years ago, he’s now a factor in nearly every race.
Juan Pablo Montoya – Smooth to the point of nonchalance, it’s unlikely Montoya will dominate in the same way he did when he was a rookie in 2000, leading 167 of the 200 laps. Posted second-fastest speed in qualifying.

Strong chance
Scott Dixon – The Al Unser Sr. of this generation – tough combination of fast, smart, cool and calculating.
James Hinchcliffe – Roared back from concussion-inducing incident in grand prix that sidelined him for the first part of the week
Tony Kanaan – Defending champion was one of the most popular winners in recent years. Has struggled in first season with Target Chip Ganassi, but usually runs well at Indianapolis
Marco Andretti – Started third, finished fourth last year after leading 31 laps. Strong on big ovals

Carlos Munoz – Excellent second-place effort last year as a rookie. Takes some chances, but gets away with it.
Josef Newgarden – Like Carpenter, this would be a popular win. American driver who came up through the open-wheel ladder system to earn a ride with Sarah Fisher’s team. Capable, but this would be a pretty big upset.
Kurt Busch – Looked very smooth before nasty crash on Monday. Good to see drivers from other disciplines try the 500.
Justin Wilson – Steady, consistent driver for Dale Coyne who was fifth last year.
Ryan Hunter-Reay – 2012 series champion has had an OK month, but has been a step behind his teammates at Andretti Autosport
J.R. Hildebrand – Lost 2011 race in heart-breaking fashion by crashing in Turn 4 on the last lap. Unceremoniously bounced from now-defunct Panther Racing, he’s been strong this month as a teammate to Carpenter.

The rest
Rookie Jack Hawksworth nearly slipped into the Fast Nine and drives for a team (Bryan Herta Autosport) that won the race in 2011 … Sebastian Bourdais is a four-time Champ Car champion … Oriol Servia finished third in 2011 … Graham Rahal hasn’t found much success in his first season driving for his dad, 1986 winner Bobby Rahal … Mikhail Aleshin is the first Russian to qualify for the 500 … Carlos Huertas is a rookie from Colombia… Pippa Mann is the only woman in this year’s race… Takuma Sato diced with Dario Franchitti before crashing late in 2012 … Alex Tagliani won the pole in 2011 … Townsend Bell finished fourth in 2009 … Charlie Kimball won his first race last year at Mid-Ohio … Jacques Villeneuve won the last “pre-split” 500 in 1995 … James Davison made two starts for Dale Coyne last year… Martin Plowman drives for A.J. Foyt… Ryan Briscoe won the pole in 2012 … Sage Karam is from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of the Andrettis, and turned 19 two months agao … Sebastian Saavedra had the pole for this year’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis … Buddy Lazier won in 1996

Photo credit: Jeff Majeske

Friday, May 23, 2014

An Appreciation of Jim Nabors

Jim Nabors has been singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” literally for as long as I can remember.

His first performance was in 1972 – the first year I'm sure I was at the track (I might’ve gone in 1971) – and came about by accident.

Tony Hulman, perhaps on a whim, asked Nabors if he wanted “to do the song.” Nabors accepted, thinking the Speedway savior meant “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The photo above is from Nabors’ performance in 1972. I love everything about it – his checkered coat, the cravat, the ladder, the ridiculously large credential and backup holder, and the piece of paper that presumably has the lyrics.

This year’s performance will be Nabors’ last.

“The first time that I ever sang at the Indy 500 in 1972, the warmth I got from the crowd immediately made me become a lifetime Hoosier; and I’ve always cherished it,” Nabors said in a news release issued in March. “I’ll see you all in May, but I’ve come to the conclusion that my health doesn’t permit me to travel very much anymore. So I’ll be retiring from singing ‘Back Home Again’ at the Indy 500 after this year.”

If you grew up in Indiana, particularly Indianapolis, the song has special meaning, and it’s hard not to get a little choked up when Nabors sings.

I sing it each time I cross into Indiana from Michigan, which causes the other passengers to get choked up as well. (OK; it's more like gagging; I guess I’m not quite as good a singer as Jim Nabors.)

The forecast for race day looks excellent; let’s hope it holds. And let’s hope Mr. Nabors is in fine voice one more time.

Did you know?
Nabors, 83, has performed at the Indianapolis 500 every year since 1987 with the exception of 2007 and 2012 races that he missed due to illness
Has performed the song 34 times in person at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Always accompanied by the Purdue “All American” Marching Band

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Thursday, May 22, 2014

I'm a Car Owner!

Thanks to my family, who somehow picked up on the fact that I'm a fan of the Indianapolis 500, I'm now a car owner. Or at least a sponsor.

My name and my son's name apparently is on the car of Josef Newgarden as part of a crowd-funding initiative. It's part of CuttersRT, The People's Race Car. (Which sounds like something Mikhail Aleshin should be a part of, don't you think?)

We're heading down today to check this out in person. You can find out more about CuttersRT here.

I remember back in 1975 Sheldon Kinser's "Spirit of Indiana" car for Grant King enjoyed similar funding.

As Newgarden made the Fast Nine, it looks like money well-spent.

Anyway, this is pretty cool, so thanks!

Remembering the Hungness Yearbooks

As the 98th Indianapolis looms, I just wanted to send out a little “thank you” to Carl Hungness for producing Indianapolis 500 yearbooks for many years.

These were annual Christmas present for me, and the many volumes over the years helped me get through the dreary days of winter. I still pull them off the shelf to relive Mays of years gone past.

Here are his first and last issues. Thanks, Carl.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Carpenter Joins Elite Company

Before jumping into today’s topic, a quick thank you and an apology.

First, thank you for reading my articles over the past two days when I was trackside. I had a lot of fun doing them, and I hope you found them informative, interesting or entertaining. (Hopefully all three at once.)

Sorry for not being out at the track on Sunday, but I had to get back to Michigan and get back to my day job.

Looking back at my Fast Nine predictions, I got six of the nine (missing badly on the Ganassi boys). I picked Helio Castroneves for the pole (wound up fourth) and had Ed Carpenter second.

After a rocky start to his Indy career (lots of crashes), Carpenter has settled down and found the fast way around the Brickyard. Only 10 others drivers have won the pole back to back for the Indianapolis 500. They are:

Ralph DePalma, 1920-21
Rex Mays, 1935-36 (these were 10-lap runs)
Eddie Sachs, 1960-61
Parnelli Jones, 1962-63
Mario Andretti, 1966-67
A.J. Foyt, 1974-75
Tom Sneva, 1977-78
Rick Mears, 1988-89
Scott Brayton, 1995-96
Helio Castroneves, 2009-10

Some pretty impressive company, to say the least, with some true legends on that list.

Only Mays, Sachs and Brayton never won the 500. Mays was runner-up in consecutive years (1940-41) while Sachs was second in 1961. Brayton’s best finish was sixth (twice).

Carpenter’s win in 2012 at Fontana suggests he could win at Indianapolis as well. His best finish is fifth in 2008. Like Tony Kanaan’s last year, it would be a popular victory.

Photo credit: Walter Kuhn/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Carpenter Has Top Spot – For Now

INDIANAPOLIS – Ed Carpenter, last year’s pole-sitter, ran the fastest qualifying speeds for the Indianapolis 500 in more than a decade during Saturday’s time trials.

He may have to do even better today to become the first back-to-back pole winner since Helio Castroneves in 2009-10.

The Indianapolis resident recorded a four-lap average of 230.661mph to snag the top spot heading into today’s final day of qualifying. That’s the fastest since 2003 when Castroneves averaged 231.725 mph.

All of the top nine qualifiers averaged better than 230 mph.

“I was hoping to only have to do that once today, but we figured we had to do it twice just to have some security,” said Carpenter, who set the pace earlier in the day when he qualified at 230.114 mph.

Saturday’s speeds will be erased, and all drivers will re-qualify again today to set the order of the 33-car field. Drivers in positions 10-30 from Saturday will get one attempt in reverse order (driver in spot 30 goes first, then driver in spot 29 and so forth).

The top nine qualifiers will participate in the Fast Nine Shootout, again getting one attempt. The driver in spot No. 9 from Saturday will make the first run.

Drivers in spots 31-33 from Saturday – plus any new entries - can make multiple attempts.  The race is Sunday, May 25.

With an unlimited amount of qualification attempts available, action was steady all day as drivers shuffled in and out of the Fast Nine until rain hit at 3:03 p.m. EDT. After a delay of about an hour, qualifying resumed, and the speeds and activity increased. A total of 71 attempts were made.

Carpenter is joined on the provisional front row by Carlos Munoz, who started second last year, and three-time winner (and four-time pole-sitter) Castroneves.

If the spots for Carpenter and Munoz hold today, it will be the first time the same drivers have started 1-2 in consecutive years.

The second row is James Hinchcliffe, returning from a concussion in last week’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, series points leader Will Power and Marco Andretti, who started third last year.

Rounding out the Fast Nine are Simon Pagenaud, the winner of the grand prix, Josef Newgarden, who made a late charge to make the Fast Nine, and J.R. Hildebrand, Carpenter’s teammate this month.

Kurt Busch, who had a NASCAR race later Saturday and had to leave early, wound up 10th.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that none of the Chip Ganassi cars made the cut to run for the pole.

Reigning series champion Scott Dixon was a lackluster 15th, Ryan Briscoe 17th, Charlie Kimball 19th and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan 23rd. The best any of them can start after today’s qualifying is 10th.

Click here for Saturday’s qualifying results. 

Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Look! A Blimp!

It's not Goodyear, but it's always fun to see a blimp floating above the Speedway.

Quick Thoughts After First Round of Qualifying

We’re through one pass through the qualifying line. Ed Carpenter has the top spot with a four-lap average of 230.114 mph, just ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 230.011 mph.

The rest of the provisional Fast Nine is:
Jack Hawksworth, 229.732 mph
James Hinchcliffe, 229.672 mph
Marco Andretti, 229.663 mph
Will Power, 229.649 mph
Juan Pablo Montoya, 229.594 mph
Carlos Munoz, 229.590 mph
Josef Newgarden, 229.471 mph

Biggest surprise: Hawksworth. Bryan Herta’s team is known for springing a few surprises, but the rookie posting the No. 3 speed after the first round of qualifying – just days after a pretty serious wreck – is shocking.

Biggest disappointment: The Ganassi cars. Qualifying has been something of a struggle for these guys the past couple of years – midpack for Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti - continued early Saturday.

Best team performance: Andretti Autosport hogging four spots with Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe (who looks sharp after his frightening crash in the grand prix), Andretti and Munoz

Lurking: Helio Castroneves was knocked out of the Fast Nine by Newgarden late in the session

One left: Safe Karam is the only driver who did not make an attempt.

Qualifying continues until 5:50 p.m. (in another departure from tradition) EDT today.

Photo of Jack Hawksworth by Dan Boyd/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Best Guess at Qualifying Order

Here’s my best guess at the qualifying order this morning. A total of 60 numbers were drawn. What’s below is based on primary cars, not any backups.

Buddy Lazier
Carlos Munoz
J.R. Hildebrand
Juan Pablo Montoya
Scott Dixon
Ed Carpenter
Jack Hawksworth
Carlos Huertas
Ryan Briscoe
Helio Castroneves
Justin Wilson
Pippa Mann
Martin Powman
Marco Andretti
Kurt Busch
Mikhail Aleshin
Graham Rahal
James Hinchcliffe
Jacques Villeneuve
Will Power
Sebastian Saavedra
James Davison
Simon Pagenaud
Charlie Kimball
Tony Kanaan
Josef Newgarden
Townsend Bell
Alex Tagliani
Takuma Sato
Ryan Hunter-Reay
Oriol Servia
Sebastien Bourdais

Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Honda-Chevrolet Match-up Looks Even

Six Hondas and four Chevrolets were in the top 10 during Saturday’s practice session. Had Ed Carpenter practiced, it’s likely it would have been five and five. Here’s the rundown:

1.)    Marco Andretti (Honda) 232.239 mph
2.)    Tony Kanaan (Chevrolet) 231.598 mph
3.)    Ryan Hunter-Reay (Honda) 231.021 mph
4.)    Kurt Busch (Honda) 230.984 mph
5.)    Townsend Bell (Chevrolet) 230.830 mph
6.)    Takuma Sato (Honda) 230.815 mph
7.)    Simon Pagenaud (Honda) 230.598 mph
8.)    Sebastien Bourdais (Chevrolet) 230.395 mph
9.)    Charlie Kimball (Chevrolet) 230.368 mph
10.) Jack Hawksworth (Honda) 230.350 mph

Photo by: Jeff Majeske (photo is from Friday)

Andretti Above 232 in Morning Practice

Marco Andretti, who had his best start last year (third), led practice on Saturday morning with a lap of 232.239 mph. Defending Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan was next at 231.598 mph. The only other car above 231 was Ryan Hunter-Reay with 231.021 mph.

NASCAR star Kurt Busch was fourth quick at 230.984 mph.

Ed Carpenter, fastest on Friday, did not practice, nor did teammate J.R. Hildebrand.

Qualifying is slated to begin at 11 a.m. EDT.

Practice was delayed about an hour due to cold temperatures.

Photo credit: Chris Jones/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Lazier Could Have First Attempt

1996 winner Buddy Lazier could make the first qualifying attempt when time trials get started at 11 a.m. EDT today.

Lazier drew the No. 2 spot behind the backup car for Ryan Briscoe. Lazier has had very limited time on the track this week – Friday’s near total washout didn’t help – with just 18 laps and a best speed of 218.277.

Practice is scheduled to get under way at 8 a.m. EDT.

Photo by Jeff Majeske

Friday, May 16, 2014

Guesses for Pole, Front Row and Fast Nine

INDIANAPOLIS – Saturday is the first day of qualifying for the 98th Indianapolis 500, but it’s not Pole Day.

Confused? You’re not alone.

The short explanation, using the NCAA Tournament as a comparison: Think of Saturday’s time trials as earning a bid into the tournament, then Sunday’s qualifying to determine the seeds.

In the latest attempt to increase interest in qualifying for the race – more cars would solve that issue – Saturday’s session will establish the 33 drivers for the race (maybe), but not the order. Bonus money and extra points (33 points for the top spot on Saturday, 32 for second and so forth) are additional incentive for the teams and drivers.

The top 30 cars from Saturday are locked in to the field. Bumping is theoretically possible, but at the moment only 33 car-and-driver combinations exist. 

The top nine qualifiers from Saturday advance to Sunday’s shootout, which will be televised on ABC starting at 1 p.m. EDT.

So the second day of qualifying becomes Pole Day.  Also on Sunday, the rest of the drivers in the provisional field will have to complete at least one more qualifying run to determine their starting spot.

All times from Saturday will be erased, and cars will run in reverse order based on their speeds from Saturday.  Similar to the bonus points on Saturday, the pole winner on Sunday will get nine points, second eight points and so forth.

With the procedures out of the way, here are my predictions:

Pole: Helio Castroneves. He’s been fast all month, er, week. Tied for second all-time with most poles (four) in Indianapolis 500 history, so he knows how to get the job done under pressure.  Besides, the Pennzoil car just looks right pacing the field at Indianapolis.

Second: Ed Carpenter. Carpenter is definitely the people’s choice, at least among the citizens of Indianapolis, who cheered mightily when their fellow resident and Butler grad scored an upset to take last year’s pole. He’s the only driver over 230 mph in practice this week.

Third: Juan Pablo Montoya. About the only thing Montoya didn’t do in his last and only Indy appearance in2000 was win the pole – he was edged out by Greg Ray, then the reigning IRL champion. He comes across as nonchalant, but maybe that’s because he makes it look so easy.

Fourth: Scott Dixon. Dixon has won the pole only once (2008), and the Ganassi team has missed the setup on qualifying the past couple of years. Still, he has seven starts in the top six in 11 previous starts.

Fifth: Marco Andretti. Hard to believe that this third-generation driver is seeking his ninth start. Best start was last year when he made the outside of the front row, matching his father’s best qualifying effort at Indianapolis.

Sixth: Will Power. Points leader has no poles at Indy, but since he joined Penske in 2009 he’s never started worse than ninth.

Seventh: Simon Pagenaud. Pagenaud won the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but has been lackluster in two previous appearances on the oval (started 23rd and 21st). One of the better Honda runners this week.

Eighth: Tony Kanaan. Never started worse than sixth in his first eight starts, including the pole in 2005. Has had a quiet week, but capable of rising up this weekend.

Ninth: J.R. Hildebrand. My surprise pick for the Fast Nine this year, he joined Carpenter’s operation for the month and has been impressive.

Photo credit: Chris Jones/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Carpenter Cracks 230 mph in Practice

INDIANAPOLIS – Fast Friday indeed. Both in terms of speed and track time.

Persistent rains limited practice to about 20 minutes on so-called Fast Friday, the final practice day before two days of qualifying for the 98th Indianapolis 500.

Under watery skies just after 3 p.m. EDT, Ed Carpenter, last year’s pole-sitter, stamped himself as the favorite to do it again by becoming the first driver this week to crack the 230 mph barrier. The 10-year veteran ran a lap at 230.522 mph in his Fuzzy’s Vodka Dallara/Chevrolet.

“When it comes to trying to predict to what the pole is going to be, I think a lot of it is going to come down to what the weather is,” said Carpenter, who admitted to getting a tow from Sebastien Bourdais on his fast lap. “If it warms up and the air gets thinner, I think 230s are realistic, and maybe up to 232 or 233 if the weather is right.”

Turbocharger boost was increased for Friday’s session, which translates to more horsepower and therefore more speed.

Six other drivers were over 229 mph, led by four-time pole winner Helio Castroneves (229.843 mph).

Also above 229 were Marco Andretti (229.419 mph), who started on the outside of the first row last year; J.R. Hildebrand, Carpenter’s teammate (229.384 mph); Josef Newgarden (229.276 mph), driving for Sarah Fisher; Juan Pablo Montoya (229.205 mph), back at Indy for the first time since 2000; and Scott Dixon (229.062 mph), 2008 pole winner.

“The car seems to be great,” Castroneves said. “We’ve been able to work well trying to develop not only a good car for racing, but also for qualifying.”

The lack of track time Friday has Andretti flummoxed regarding his possibilities for Saturday.

“Normally you have a good feeling whether you’re in trouble or you’re going to have a shot,” Andretti said.  “I have no idea if I’m going to be on pole or 15th tomorrow.”

The qualifying format has been revised for this year’s race in an effort to drive more interest. Saturday’s opening day of qualifying creates a provisional grid, with the top nine qualifiers participating in the Fast Nine Shootout to determine the pole and the first three rows. The remaining order of the 33-car grid will be determined Sunday as well.

An explainer infographic can be found here.

Rick Mears, the record-holder for most Indianapolis 500 poles with six, thinks the new format should be given a chance.

“As far as changing the thing, this sport is really about change,” he said. “In a race car, you’re changing every lap, every corner. It’s about adapting.”

Practice resumes at 8 a.m. EDT on Saturday, with qualifying scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. EDT.

Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Odds and ends from Team Penske Press Conference

Roger Penske on the dominant performance of the Mercedes-Benz engine in 1994, which was outlawed soon after that year’s Indianapolis 500: “If you do too well, typical, you get slapped.”
That year, Al Unser Jr. won the pole and the race; he and Emerson Fittipaldi combined to lead 193 of the 200 laps.

Rick Mears on possibly climbing a fence after his fourth 500 victory in 1991: “No, not at all. They didn’t have fences back then.”

Mears on the old qualifying format when drivers had three attempts per car, and on Pole Day likely had just one opportunity: “I enjoyed that only, having one shot at it. I felt it really put the pressure on. You had to get four laps, every corner. If you blew one corner, you blew the whole deal. I enjoyed that pressure.”

Juan Pablo Montoya on changes to the car to accommodate the increased turbocharger boost: “I don’t know. I know we’re doing gears. But I don’t know. I just drive it.”

Photo credit: Chris Owens/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Byrd’s Racing To Fly Again

Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, a team with some notable heritage at the Indianapolis 500, will return for next year’s Indianapolis 500 with open-wheel star Bryan Clauson.

Clauson, who made his lone Indianapolis 500 appearance in 2012, is a two-time national sprint car and midget champion.

“The Byrd family has a tremendous history not only at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but also among the short-track community as well,” Clauson said.

Jonathan Byrd’s Cafeteria is one of the more notable eateries in central Indiana and traces its involvement in Indy cars back to 1985. Arie Luyendyk set the one-lap and four-lap qualifying records of 237.498 mph and 236.986 mph, respectively, in 1996 in a Reynard/Ford Cosworth.

Past Byrd drivers include Rich Vogler, Stan Fox, Gordon Johncock, Buddy Lazier, Scott Brayton, John Andretti, Davy Jones, Mike Groff and Jaques Lazier. 

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Pennzoil Colors Agree With Castroneves

And we’re off and running. Please check back for more news and analysis over the next couple of days while I’m trackside.

I was able to grab Helio Castroneves after this morning’s formal press conference for a couple of comments about any added pressure driving the Pennzoil car for Team Penske. Rick Mears scored two wins and three poles in this livery in the 1980s.

“Pressure is good because it makes you better,” said the three-time race winner and four-time pole winner. “I don’t feel pressure. It’s an honor to wear those colors and want to represent well what the champions did. So far, there’s a good vibe and I really like it.”

Castroneves enters today’s Fast Friday practice session (weather does not look overly promising at this point) with the fastest lap of the week at 227.166 mph.

Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Friday, May 9, 2014

Time for the Trek to the Track

I don’t know the first time I went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The first house I lived in was on Fuller Drive, which is off 30th Street across from the Coke field. From there I could easily hear the race cars. I remember taking my cars – an assortment of Tootsie toys, Hot Wheels and Matchbox, almost none of which looked like an Indy car - and playing with them on the back porch while the real racers roared around the track.

(“The track,” by the way, is how people in Indianapolis refer to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.)

So I’m guessing that a gentle suggestion and/or incessant whining led my parents to take me to see where all the noise was coming from and what the fuss is all about.

My best guess would be when I was 3 and maybe we wandered down to Turn 1- inside the old main gate – to watch tire testing in the spring.

Certainly I was there in 1972 as Bobby Unser’s gleaming Olsonite Eagle made quite an impression on me.

From that point, I was hooked. I would hurry home to hear the track reports from Lou Palmer on WIBC. I pored over the articles in the Indianapolis News and Indianapolis Star. (When I moved out of state, I got the monthly subscription to The Star.) I watched “Trackside 6.” I listened to “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” (still do, actually).

I’ve been going ever since. No matter where I lived – West Lafayette, Indiana; Logansport, Indiana; Springfield, Missouri; Portage, Indiana; or Canton, Michigan – I made it a point to make the trek back to 16th and Georgetown for practice or qualifying, if not the actual race.

Later, I brought my children. In an example of the lugnut not falling far from the tire, they immediately scampered down the hill in the infield to get next to the fence to watch the cars accelerate down the backstretch out of Turn 2.

Saturday, my son and I will leave for Indianapolis to be trackside for the first day of practice for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

On the way down, I will treat him to another edition of my oft-told tales of the Unsers, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Gordon Johncock, Mike Mosley, Peter Revson, Mark Donohue and the other drivers of my youth.

As well as Eagles, McLarens, Coyotes, Dragons and Parnellis. Offenhausers and Coyote V-8s. Sponsors like Gulf, Sunoco, STP, Sugaripe Prune, Cobre, Bryant, Gilmore and Thermo-King.

When cars were still called “specials.” Or had clever names. The Norton Spirit. The American Kids Racer. The Pepsi Challenger. The Texaco Star.

I hope someday he does the same with his son, telling him about Will Power, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon.

It’s May. Finally.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Indianapolis 500 Memorabilia of the Day: A Textbook

The cover of this book immediately grabbed my attention. Number 0? Based on the helmet, this has to be Swede Savage getting ready for a practice run in 1973. Did the “4” fall off somewhere? (Also, I love the Wheel Horse tractor behind the pit wall.)

The cover isn’t the only intriguing thing about this book, however. This is a textbook, or at least was intended to be – there are no school district markings inside, only a stamp from the Oconee County Library in South Carolina.

The book is filled with photos from the 1972, 1973 and 1974 events, including some pretty rare ones. Besides the STP “0” Eagle, there also are a few shots of Graham McRae practicing in the No. 60 STP Lola in 1973. A shot of Peter Revson in a Formula One car snuck in as well.

From an academic standpoint, this book is designed to build vocabulary and reading ability. A list of 20 follow-up activities is suggested in the back.

All and all an interesting bit of Indianapolis 500 memorabilia.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Vintage ad of the day: Hoosier Grand Prix

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to snag some vintage programs. One was for the July 18, 1965, national championship race at Trenton Speedway.

This ad was on Page 10. First time for Indy-style cars on a road course. With an OK from the FIA as well.

Of course, this year for the first time Indy cars will compete on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s hoped that having a race to kick off May will somehow reinvigorate the activities leading up to this year’s Indianapolis 500. We’ll see.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

IndyCar Memorabilia of the Week: Michael Andretti car

This week’s race is Long Beach, site of Michael Andretti’s first win in 1986.

Other than being No. 18 and having “Kraco” written along the side, his car looked nothing like this.

Not sure where you would’ve found this. There’s no punch for it to hang on a rack, like in a store.

Maybe you got it for free if you bought a cassette player, floor mat or CB radio from Kraco.

Kraco also sold cellular phones. In those days, cell phones were carried in a bag, not on your hip. They  looked like one of those field telephones you see soldiers carrying around in a World War II movie.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Look for Montoya to shake up Indy racing - again

Like spring in the Midwest, the IndyCar season is a late – but most welcome – arrival.

The 2014 season starts Sunday at St. Petersburg, Fla., with an especially intriguing storyline: Juan Pablo Montoya’s return to open-wheel cars in the newly named Verizon IndyCar Series.

A former Indianapolis 500 winner and open-wheel champion, the Colombian is back in the form of racing that launched him first into Formula One, then a much-too-long foray into NASCAR.

With victories in Indy cars, Formula One, NASCAR and sports cars, Montoya’s span of accomplishment in different types of race cars rivals that of Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney.

Pretty heady company.

Now that Montoya is done wasting some of the prime years of his career plodding around in NASCAR, we’ll see how fast he can return to form in open wheel.

If it’s anything like his initial go-round, it should make for an exciting season. Montoya came out of nowhere as a rookie in 1999 with Target Chip Ganassi, beating Dario Franchitti for the CART title on the basis of more wins (seven to three).

The last person to win the CART series title as a rookie was Nigel Mansell in 1993. Again, pretty heady company.

The next year he dominated the Indianapolis 500 as Ganassi became the first of the big-name CART teams to return after the split in 1996. Montoya was barely challenged over the last three-fourths of the race, leading 167 laps.

Montoya adds an interesting dynamic to Team Penske, which has been solid by most standards, but underwhelming by Penske’s the last few years. Perhaps his arrival will spur Helio Castroneves to win that record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500, which seemed likely after starting his career two-for-two, and/or Will Power to claim the series title that has eluded him on several occasions.


·         Defending Indianapolis 500 champ Tony Kanaan is finally at Target Chip Ganassi, his rumored destination some years ago. Kanaan and Castroneves are the only current drivers who raced against Montoya in 1999. Ganassi now will run Chevrolet engines after several years as the leading Honda team.

·         Kanaan replaces Franchitti, who was forced to retire after his frightening crash at Houston late in the season. The Brazilian will pair with reigning series champ Scott Dixon, by far the best all-around driver in IndyCar.

·         Former race winners Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball make up the Ganassi satellite teams

·         Andretti Autosport swapped being the No. 2 Chevrolet team (behind Penske) to be the No. 1 Honda team. The trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti looked strong at times last season before fading. Carlos Munoz, who finished a surprising second in last year’s 500, replaces E.J. Viso.
·         Graham Rahal will try to jump-start his career running for his father and driving for the National Guard. Oriol Servia will be Rahal’s teammate at select events. The loss of the National Guard sponsorship led Panther Racing to shut down its operation and bring a lawsuit against Rahal and the league.
·         IndyCar’s oddest pairing – A.J. Foyt and Takuma Sato – is back, hoping to regain their early season form. Rookie Martin Plowman has a ride for Indianapolis … Fan-favorite teams Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter also will expand in May. Fisher adds Alex Tagliani to go with Josef Newgarden while Carpenter will have ex-Panther shoe J.R. Hildebrand, who was released after his early race crash in last year’s 500. Mike Conway will tackle non-ovals for Carpenter’s outfit … Simon Pagenaud looks to build on his first career win with Sam Schmidt’s operation, which adds rookie Mikhail Aleshin, a native of Moscow … Justin Wilson is joined by rookie Carlos Huertas at Dale Coyne … In a pairing that surely will lead to numerous typos over the course of the season, Sebastian Saavedra teams with Sebastien Bourdais at KV … Bryan Herta Autosport tapped rookie Jack Hawksworth for its ride
Photo credit: Bret Kelley/Verizon IndyCar Series

Monday, March 17, 2014

Remembering Gary Bettenhausen

My mother, for reasons not entirely clear to me, was a big Gary Bettenhausen fan.

Maybe it was because, like my mother, he was from Illinois.

Maybe it’s because he stopped his car and got out to help Mike Mosley when he had his fiery crash in 1971.

Maybe it’s because he dominated the first Indianapolis 500 she attended in 1972 before dropping out late.

She was particularly delighted to draw his name in the office pool in 1974. Unfortunately, Bettenhausen lasted only two laps, finishing 32nd due to engine trouble.

Fast forward 17 years to 1991, and Gary B. is turning practice laps that put him at the top of the speed charts. I’m now on the other side of the wall, a young sports writer covering the Indianapolis 500 for the Logansport Pharos-Tribune.

After one practice run, Bettenhausen steps out of the car, and I ask him a few questions, scribbling furiously in my notebook to get the story for my readers, which I will bang out on my Radio Shack TRS-80.

I look the part of a professional journalist. Until I break protocol and ask, on impulse, if he could sign an autograph to my mother, who, I mentioned, was a very big fan of his.

This is a pretty serious no-no. In fact, it’s spelled out in the credential form agreement to not do this – for obvious reasons.

But if a son can’t do something nice for his mother once in a while, what good is he?

When I presented the autograph to my mother, she was absolutely delighted and kept it for the rest of her life, passing in 2004.

Thanks, Gary B.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Verizon on the Horizon: Hoping for a Better Connection

Let’s hope Verizon does a better job raising the profile of IndyCar than previous partners.

Frankly, the bar is set pretty low for the communications giant. A look back at some of the other series sponsors from the Indy Racing League days to present:

Pep Boys: Manny Moe and Jack were to have been the title sponsors for the series for five years starting in 1998. They packed up their tool box after two. They promised, according to the series’ 1998 media guide, “strong advertising and promotional support” as well as a $1 million bonus for the championship-winning driver and owner as well as contributions to the purse for each race.

Northern Light: Replacing the Pep Boys was a search-engine company for the newfangled internet. We can only speculate how things might be today had the IRL been able to partner with Google instead. “Fastest cars. Fastest search.” Or something like that. Again, digging through the archives we find that the 2000 series media guide reports a five-year, $50 million agreement, including $1 million to the championship winner as well as $500,000 annually for driver awards in what was called the Northern Light Circle of Champions. The public search engine closed down in 2002, and Northern Light was bought out.
Izod: After the Northern Light clipper ship sank, it was a long wait before Izod came aboard, first as the official apparel sponsor starting in 2008, then as the series sponsor starting in 2010. In the beginning, Izod did some cool commercials – both TV and print - featuring the drivers. Some of the apparel was nice – if you could find it.

I liked the way Izod tapped into the heritage of the Indianapolis 500 with some nice T-shirts for Ray Harroun, Wilbur Shaw, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti, among others. On the other hand, a lot of the stuff was overpriced, in my opinion. $60 for a polo? Come on. Interest cooled, and Izod quietly packed its suitcase after the 2013 season.

Verizon: Like the others, this will be a multi-year deal, according to Friday’s news release. As with Izod, a specific dollar amount was not given, and also like Izod, Verizon started a business relationship with IndyCar at a lower tier (official wireless provider) before stepping up. Click here for more on the announcement.

Photo credit: Jeff Majeske. Sorry about the fence. Took this on Carb Day last year.