Friday, February 28, 2014

Dividing Line Might Come Full Circle

If Buddy Lazier indeed puts together a program for this year’s Indianapolis 500, then an interesting showdown of sorts looms at 16th and Georgetown.

That’s because earlier this week Jacques Villeneuve was confirmed for an Indy-only ride with Sam Schmidt’s operation.

This means the 1995 champion (Villeneuve) and 1996 winner (Lazier) could, potentially, square off in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The year 1995, of course, is significant. To some (many?), this was the last great Indianapolis 500 and, maybe more to the point, the last great season of open-wheel racing in this country.

That season, the landscape included well-known drivers, plentiful car counts (at least 26 starters in most races), several chassis (Lola, Reynard, Penske) and engine (Mercedes, Ford, Honda) manufacturers, two tire choices and 17 different venues covering high-speed ovals, short ovals, natural-terrain road courses.

This year we’ll have 18 events – that’s counting double-headers at Detroit, Houston, Toronto and the two events at Indianapolis. Five of these will be on network television – none after June 1.

One other note about 1995: There were two feeder series (Toyota Atlantic and Indy Lights), each with some future race winners and champions. Toyota Atlantic had Richie Hearn, Patrick Carpentier and Felipe Giaffone , while Indy Lights had Greg Moore, Robbie Buhl, Buzz Calkins and Jeff Ward.

Villeneuve’s Indianapolis 500 win and subsequent driver’s championship propelled him to Formula One. He wasn’t around for the calamity the 1996 season – and the next decades – wrought to open-wheel racing in this country in general and to the 500 in particular.

I won’t rehash “The Split” here; suffice to say IndyCar racing remains on a slow climb back to relevance in the sporting landscape – both in the U.S. and globally.

Lazier drove a heady, gutty race to claim the 1996 Indianapolis 500 against a field lacking in star power and overall ability. In 1995, remember, the field was so competitive that neither of the Team Penske drivers - Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi (the two previous 500 winners) – qualified.

Lazier never has been accorded the respect of other 500 champions, and probably won’t unless he can pull off another win. Which is a shame, because he’s a bulldog on ovals. I’ve talked with the likable Lazier a few times over the years, and he’s convinced that he was just as fast as Juan Pablo Montoya on the track during the 2000 race and that the faster pit work by Montoya’s team was the difference.

That’s debatable, of course. From where I sat in Turn 4 that day, it looked like Montoya toyed with the field, and if he needed to up the speed, he was certainly capable of doing so. In any event, with Montoya’s return to the series with Penske, Lazier might get another crack at him.

One more thing about Lazier: His qualifying run in 2008, when he used all his experience, desire and attachments to will a reluctant car into the field, merits the respect of all racing fans.

Hopefully everything comes together because it would be nice to see these two former Indy champions who represent the two sides of the split finally compete in the same Indianapolis 500.

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"Wall Smacker" Warms Cold Winter Days

The only good thing about the never-ending snow, cold and generally miserable weather is that it allows me the opportunity to catch up on my motorsports reading.

Which brings me to “Wall Smacker,” the autobiography of 1925 Indianapolis 500 winner Peter DePaolo.

It’s a bit humbling to hold in your hands a book that is nearly 80 years old  - and in very good shape at that. I wonder how, why and where the original owner got it, and how many hands it has passed through before I was fortunate to find it.

I developed a certain fondness and appreciation for DePaolo as a 7-year-old after attending the 1975 Indianapolis 500 with my family. This was my first “official” 500 – I did attend the third day of the ill-fated 1973 event, but we left after Swede Savage had his horrible crash basically right in front of us.

The 1975 event marked the 50th anniversary of DePaolo’s win, so he took a ceremonial lap before the race. I also have memories of him being interviewed before the race, on Pole Day and on TV programs.

DePaolo also was the grand marshal of the parade that year. During each interview he was friendly and of course eager to recount his Indianapolis triumph.

As a side note, in a way we all may owe DePaolo a thanks - in a roundabout way - for establishing Jim Nabors as the yearly singer of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

DePaolo belted out the song that means so much to fans on race day in 1971. How did he do? Well, accounts indicate that as a singer DePaolo was a great race car driver. The next year, Nabors took over and pretty much has had the job since.

Back to “Wall Smacker,” which was the unfortunate nickname DePaolo earned, along with “Pileup Pete,” as he learned his craft. It’s an engaging, interesting read, full of tidbits of information that demonstrate how much racing has changed over the many decades – and how much remains the same.

For one thing, DePaolo developed quite a bit of mechanical knowledge as the riding mechanic for several years for his uncle, Ralph DePalma, winner of the 1915 500.

A.J. Foyt was probably the last driver who could actually work on his car; today’s rules mean that basically only the engineers and technicians from the respective manufacturers can touch the engine.

In DePaolo’s case, he often took an active hand in getting his machine prepped for races, sometimes working long into the night and morning before driving the next day.

DePaolo’s tale also includes traveling by boat to compete in Europe, racing in places like Charlotte, N.C., long before NASCAR was even a dream, running on the steeply banked board tracks and terrible crashes where drivers were thrown from their cars.

A glimpse at how the Speedway was managed under Eddie Rickenbacker, who owned the track before Tony Hulman bought it in 1945, also is offered.

People won’t be reading from iPads and Kindles 80 years from now – some other even more portable, more convenient piece of technology will do the job.

Still there’s no substitute for a good book, sitting on the shelf, waiting patiently to be discovered and appreciated by a new audience.