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.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Indianapolis 500 Needs More Entries, Fewer Gimmicks

Auto racing is pretty simple: Go faster than everyone else.

So it should be a red flag that an infographic is needed to explain the latest qualifying procedures for the Indianapolis 500.

Frankly, until there are a reasonable number of viable entries competing for the 33 spots – somewhere around 40 would be great, but I’d settle for 35 or 36 at this point – it doesn’t matter how often the drivers qualify and re-qualify because it’s basically just shuffling the deck.

I suppose it’s possible that a driver could go from 29th spot one day to 10th the next day, but given the spec nature of the cars, that seems unlikely. I’ll be interested to see if there are big changes from one day to the next this year.

Anyway, here’s my solution given the lack of entries:

Have just one day of qualifying. At best, there might be 33 cars this year, so there’s no reason to drag this out over three sessions in two days. Just do it on Saturday, reserving Sunday as the rain date or an additional practice day to run cars in race trim.

  • 8-8:30 – First group practice
  • 8:30-9 – Second group practice
  • 9-10 – "All skate" open practice
  • 10-11 – Track closed for inspection, refuel cars, get them lined up
  • 11-6 – Qualifying. Set the field and the fast nine. Each car gets up to three attempts.
  • 6-6:15 – Refuel and line up the fast nine
  • 6:15-7 – Fast nine shootout. One attempt per car.
This one-day, make-or-break session has the potential to give the paying customer a full day of action and, hopefully, some drama without putting the drivers and equipment at unnecessary peril.

In the meantime, figure out a way to get more participants for the 500. Bring back the bubble. It’s a word we’ll hear for the next week or so as it relates to the NCAA Tournament.

It would be nice to hear that word in May again, not just March.

Photo credit: Mark Reed/Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Ed Carpenter won the pole for last year's Indianapolis 500. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Remembering Mike Mosley

A little tribute to Mike Mosley, who was one of my favorite drivers when I was a kid. Would love to hear The Pepsi Challenger roar (and that car truly did roar) around the Speedway one more time.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dixon Featured In Two Ads in Free Press

Reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon’s upcoming appearance at a Detroit Pistons game is featured in two color, quarter-page ads in today’s Detroit Free Press sports section.

Good to see IndyCar making use of its champion. The drivers – and owners – are IndyCar’s biggest asset.