Friday, May 22, 2015

Dixon's The One

After a chaotic May filled with mysterious and horrifying crashes, last-minute rules changes and uncooperative weather, look for calm and cool Scott Dixon to collect his second Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

Known as the “Iceman,” the 2008 Indy champion has the talent, demeanor and car to add a second Borg-Warner Trophy to his impressive list of accomplishments and restore sanity to a sometimes disturbing month.

Coincidentally, Dixon won the pole in 2008, then proceeded to lead the most laps on his way to a convincing victory.

“If we could replicate 2008, that would be fantastic,” Dixon said after his pole-winning run.”That's the goal. It's very hard to pull that off. You know, unfortunately there's 32 other very good competitors out there and a lot of stacked teams, a lot of teams that this week we've been running with in traffic and they're very, very good.”

The transplanted native of New Zealand now living in Indianapolisanticipates a tougher race than in 2008, when he led 115 laps.

“I think the tow and the draft this year is bigger than any other year, so it's not going to be one of those years. When I won in 2008 you could break the tow after three seconds and drive away if you had good speed, and that's not going to be the case this time.”

Dixon, who’s driven for Target Chip Ganassi for his entire career at Indianapolis, figures he’ll have to push his Dallara-Chevrolet all day.

“It's going to be flatout. We need to try and stay near the front and give ourselves a good shot come the last 10 laps,” he said.

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

Other favorites:
Will Power: Reigning national champion focused on first Indianapolis 500 victory. Has not had the magic touch at IMS, though, with a best finish of fifth in 2009.
Simon Pagenaud: Earned call-up to Team Penske in offseason after impressive results with underfunded Sam Schmidt operation.
Tony Kanaan: Dixon’s teammate on Ganassi team rewarded the faithful with popular victory in 2013 in 12th attempt. Displayed big-track prowess with win in 2014 season finale at Fontana.
Helio Castroneves: Disappointing qualifying run for perennial pole contender. Three-time 500 winner (2001, ’02, ’09) is always a contender on race day.
Juan Pablo Montoya: 2000 winner has had a quiet month and seemingly has tailed off after impressive win in season-opener at St. Petersburg. Won at Pocono last year, another big, flat track.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Defending champion thrilled the crowd with hard, clean duel with Castroneves last year.

Would be an upset, but could happen:
Justin Wilson: Surprisingly good qualifying effort (he’ll start sixth with fastest Honda) in one-off effort. Proven winner who deserves a full-season ride.
Sebastian Bourdais: Four-time CART/Champ Car series champion also had a surprisingly strong qualifying effort. Speedway has not been kind, with his best finish of seventh coming last year.
Marco Andretti: Lackluster at most venues, third-generation driver shines at Indianapolis with a second, three thirds and a fourth in nine previous starts.
Josef Newgarden: Part of the new face of IndyCar and now a proven winner after victory at Barber this year. Still learning his way around Indy, with previous finishes of 25th, 28th and 30th.
Ed Carpenter: Was going for an unprecedented third straight pole before crash during practice before qualifying. Butler grad would be a popular champion.
Graham Rahal: No sponsor has had more fun this month than Steak n Shake (build one in Canton, Michigan, please) and no driver has higher hopes than the son of the 1986 champ.
Takuma Sato: Another driver who’s been under the radar this month. Has had some good results, including a win at Long Beach, while driving for legendary A.J. Foyt. Crashed in Turn 1 trying to wrest victory from Dario Franchitti in closing stages of 2012 500.

Would be an even bigger upset, but could happen
J.R. Hildebrand: Almost winner in 2011 before crashing in Turn 4 on last lap. Part of the Carpenter/Fisher stable, has had a steady month.
Carlos Munoz: Second and fourth in two previous starts, Colombian is known for taking a brave line around the Brickyard.
Oriol Servia: Veteran always does a solid job, with a fourth and a sixth among his 500 finishes. Could land in the top 10.
Charlie Kimball: Fifth-year veteran drives for one of the Ganassi satellite teams. His best Indy finish is eighth in 2012.
Alex Tagliani: Former pole winner draws on heritage of two legends: the No. 48 of Dan Gurney while driving for A.J. Foyt
Sage Karam: Impressive debut last year (advanced from 31st to ninth) earned consideration for Rookie of the Year. Had some stumbles with Ganassi team this season, but appears to have righted the ship.
Townsend Bell: Color scheme and number (24, decked out to resemble Jeff Gordon’s number) make this one of the most distinctive cars in the field. This will be his ninth start.
Jack Hawksworth: Running full season for A.J. Foyt after rookie year with Bryan Herta. Another promising young driver.

Highly unlikely
Tristan Vautier: Last-minute replacement for Carlos Huertas, who was ruled out because of an inner-ear problem. Promising young driver.
Simona de Silvestro: Returns to Indianapolis as part of Andretti team after one-year absence. Former Rookie of the Year a fan favorite.
James Jakes: Back after one-year absence, he finished 15th and 20th in two other starts.
James Davison: Starts in the back after taking over car originally qualified by Vautier. Finished 16th in debut last year.
Conor Daly: Painted Petty blue and sponsored by a bacon company, this may be the most thoroughly American car in the field.
Pippa Mann: Determined Brit looks to improve upon Indy career average finish of 25th.
Gabby Chaves: Fastest rookie in first season with Bryan Herta’s team. Last year’s Indy Lights champion, won the Freedom 100 at IMS.
Sebastian Saavedra: Another Ganassi satellite driver, had his best Indy finish of 15th last year.
Stefano Coletti: Promising rookie for KV Racing Technology.
Bryan Clauson: Throwback driver in this year’s field with considerable experience and success in USAC. Sponsor, Jonathan Byrd’s Cafeteria, a fan favorite.
Ryan Briscoe: Former pole winner (2012) in tough spot replacing the injured James Hinchcliffe.

Photo credits: Scott Dixon and Will Power by Shawn Gritzmacher, Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Graham Rahal by Walter Kuhn, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Monday, May 11, 2015

Some Quick Thoughts – and Long Ramblings – on my First Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis

The seats
Our seats – in Stand E – would be incredible for the Indianapolis 500. For the Grand Prix they are … OK. First, there was no passing in this section - with the exception of a backmarker giving way to a faster car. Second, from this spot it’s really hard to tell the running order. A new, large video board was installed across from our spot, but I couldn’t read the positions. Same deal with the new and improved pylon – too far away for me to read. Of course, all of this didn’t matter much anyway given how Will Power dominated the race.

The crowd
What crowd? Here are shots just before the race to our left and to our right. Plenty of room to move around – bring a friend or two next time. Heck, bring a busload or two. The upper penthouses seemed full, which is good from a revenue standpoint. How many people were in the infield is hard to gauge, but obviously no one’s in Turn 1 or Turn 4 (oval configuration) anymore.

The Indianapolis Star estimated the crowd at 40,000, which seems generous, quite frankly. Let’s say there are 220,000 permanent seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That means about every 1 in 5 seats would be filled if you put the folks from the infield into the stands. This seems unlikely.

A smaller audience does have its benefits, though. First, parking (and leaving) was a snap. We parked at Main Gate, a gravel lot south of the track. I was concerned about the goofy roundabout that replaced the whole 16th Street/Crawfordsville Road/Georgetown Road confluence, but with no traffic, no problem. Getting out was easy, though I have to wonder exactly what the police were doing other than using their vehicles to block westbound 16th Street – no traffic direction to speak of.

Inside the track, it was easy to get to the restroom, get food and generally get around. Plus the crowd was well-behaved and attentive. It reminded me a lot of the races I went to at Gateway many years ago.

The museum
One of the places we wandered to, of course, was the museum. The featured display is a collection of Dan Gurney’s Eagles, which are some of my favorites – especially Bobby Unser’s pole-winning Olsonite Eagle from 1972.

Much to my delight, also included is the Pepsi Challenger of Mike Mosley from 1981. This car was loud (stock-block Chevrolet engine) and fast (started on the middle of the front row).

A first
I’ve been going to the track for more than 40 years, but Saturday brought a new experience - some Lance Armstrong wannabe actually brought his bike into the stands. At first, he was going to take it up to the penthouse. (Yes, really.) The yellow shirt for our section politely, yet firmly, informed him he couldn’t do that. So he went down a few rows and sat down. With his bike. Mr. Yellow Shirt again asked him to leave, which he did. Now, it’s great to ride a bike over to the track and all, but bringing it in the stands seems like all kinds of dumb. Besides, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of steel structures to chain a bike to.

The food
Here’s a surprise/disappointment: During breakfast hours, the concession stands were serving breakfast food. No corn dogs. Which, by the way, I could not find ANYWHERE. (Memo to Doug Boles: It’s bad enough you can’t get sno-cones anymore. Please don’t let corn dogs go away. Thank you.)

If you’re at a race track, it’s perfectly OK to have a corn dog at 8 a.m. Instead, a big pretzel had to suffice.

Later, I had a tenderloin, but made the mistake of (again) getting one of the $9 fancy ones that has bacon, jalapenos, onions and something else that doesn’t belong on a tenderloin.

Look, a tenderloin is a tenderloin – you’re not going to be able to put lipstick on that pig, so to speak. Just pound it down to 1/8th of an inch, bread it, deep fry it, serve it on a bun that’s too small even for a White Castle’s and we’ll be just fine. Why is this so difficult? If you’re having trouble with this concept, please contact Mr. Happy Burger of Logansport, Indiana, and let him take over this part of the operation. The tenderloins there are world class.

The voice
Here I am with Paul Page, for many years the Voice of the 500 – first on radio, then on TV. Now he leads the radio broadcasts of the Verizon IndyCar Series. I remember when Page was on WIBC as well as his various Indianapolis 500 shows on Channel 13 – “33 on the Line,” “The Roar is Over,” and so forth. Good to see him.

The race
First-lap kerfuffles take the excitement out of the crowd, er, fans. This is two years in a row that the drivers were unable to get through the first turn, let alone the first lap.

Please stop crashing into each other. And, sorry, Juan Pablo Montoya, don’t blame the track configuration. You are professional race car drivers. This is why I paid $62 for a ticket and $5 for a bottle of Coke – to see professional race car drivers drive, uh, professionally.

Power’s day looked supremely easy – the only bobble I noted was when he cut through the grass a bit coming out of the turn and heading down the straightaway. Scott Dixon showed why he is, in my opinion, the best driver in the series by fighting back to finish 10th after getting punted by Helio Castroneves on the first lap.

Maybe Castroneves was just in the spirit of the race – the Colts’ punter, Pat McAfee, drove the pace car for this event. (Really? The punter for the Colts was the best you could do?)

The verdict
I’m willing to give this race another try. In fact, I have no choice. As Sean points out, we have to go next year because Will Power will be on the ticket. I might scoot a little more northward to get a better view of the cars and scoring information, but overall I like E stand and hope the event picks up momentum.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Conundrum That is Marco Andretti

A fair chunk of Sunday afternoon was spent assembling a kitchen island for my wife. Of course, I would’ve rather have been at the track on a beautiful and busy opening day.

But with Mother’s Day and a trip to the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis coming up, a bit of domestic engineering was in order.

Fortunately, I was able to watch and listen to the feed from the track, which is much appreciated by us Indianapolis ex-patriates. While wrenching on this kitchen island, pretending it were an Offy, I noted the progress of Marco Andretti up the speed charts.

The third-generation driver wound up third-fastest, behind Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves. Each had a lap above 226 mph; Ed Carpenter took the pole last year with an average above 231 mph. The entire list of Sunday’s practice speeds is here.

Of course, we’re talking about practice and specifically aero kit testing, so drawing any conclusions is a risky proposition.

Still, it reinforces the notion that Andretti, often lackluster at other venues, gets around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pretty well.

Here’s the data of his entire IndyCar career, according to

  • Average start: 11.1
  • Average finish: 11.7
  • Wins: Two in 155 races over nine-plus years
  • Poles: Four
  • Laps led: 930
Andretti's Indianapolis 500 stats:

  • Average start: 9.8
  • Average finish: 11.3
  • Wins: Zero (thanks to Sam Hornish Jr.)
  • Poles: Zero
  • Laps led: 141

Not much difference on the surface, right?

A closer look, though, shows seven top-10 starts in nine races and six top-10 finishes, including five in the top four.

I’m not sure how much of a lift an Andretti win in the Indianapolis 500 would give to the event, the sport and the series, but it would be fun to find out. 

Photo credit: Walter Kuhn/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Remembering the Indianapolis News 500 Record Books

Long before you could carry the entire world in your hand in the form of your phone, the Indianapolis News produced a pocked-sized history of the Indianapolis 500.

Each volume was packed with text-heavy information – driver head shots along with a few other photos accounted for the art in the book.

Each race had a box score that included car name and number, qualifying speed, starting position, finishing position, laps completed and race speed or reason out, along with highlights and key moments in the summary.

Performance histories of all Indianapolis 500 drivers were included, along with other tidbits like birthplaces of all 500 champions (did you know that 1932 winner Fred Frame was from Exeter, New Hampshire?), rookies of the year, qualifying records and a lot of stuff that hardcore Indianapolis 500 fans ate up.

The books also had accounts of the other 500-mile races at Ontario, Pocono and Michigan.

It was a tremendous resource for ending – or starting – arguments.

Generally speaking, the cover subject was the previous year’s winner. Drawings were the norm up until 1990, when photos were used. The 1993 book had a nice photo of Al Unser Jr. nipping Scott Goodyear at the checkered flag – you had to turn that one sideways.

I’m not sure how long these were produced. The oldest I’ve seen on eBay is from 1966, with the “newest” from 2003. The Indianapolis News, the afternoon paper, closed in 1999, but the morning paper, the Indianapolis Star, continued the book for at least a few more years.

All this data is available on your phone now, of course, but it sure was fun to whip one of these books out during a lull and ask the person sitting next to you if he knew how many times the one-lap qualifying record was broken and reset in 1972.

The answer, by the way, is five, accomplished by Bill Vukovich, Joe Leonard, Mario Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen and Bobby Unser. Found on page 144 of the 2002 book.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Gordon a Strange Choice to Pace 500

So, Jeff Gordon will drive the pace car for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Nothing against Jeff Gordon, but, really?

I guess Helio Castroneves will drive the pace car for this year’s Brickyard 400 then.

To have a current NASCAR driver pace the field for the Indianapolis 500 seems bizarre.

And a bit insulting. With the 100th Indianapolis 500 coming next year, this is the time to remember the unparalleled heritage of the event and its drivers.

If it’s necessary to have a current NASCAR driver with Indiana connections drive the pace car for the 500, then Tony Stewart would have made more sense. Unlike Gordon, the Columbus native at least DROVE in the Indianapolis 500 – five times.

My suggestion for this year’s pace car driver is Danny Sullivan in honor of the 30th anniversary of his spin and win.

For old times’ sake, Sullivan could loop the pace car in Turn 1 in front of Mario Andretti ’s two-seater.

Several pace-car “rookies” with deep connections to the Indianapolis 500 were available, such as Arie Luyendyk. Race-day duties keep Rick Mears and Roger Penske occupied, though it seems that could be figured out. After all, A.J. Foyt led the field in 2011 and made it back to his pit box.

The list goes on: Mario Andretti. Bobby Rahal. Michael Andretti. Al Unser Jr. Any of them – and many more – would’ve made more sense.

Next year, I hope all the retired Indianapolis 500 champions are part of the parade lap, with Foyt, Mears and Al Unser Sr. in one car leading the field to the green flag.

Based on this year’s selection, it’ll probably be Richard Petty.

Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway