Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

            As 2013 comes to a close, I want to take a minute and reflect. I am so darn ready for 2014 to come. Have been for awhile. Wasn’t easy for me personally and as a race fan, it felt worse.
            I think most racing fans and those in the racing community agree that a new year would be a good thing.
            I haven’t seen a year that so many negative events have happened, some that have made headlines in mainstream media nationally and/or worldwide! The only 100% positive story I can think of with that honor was Danica’s pole at Daytona.
            So I’ve put together what I call the good, bad, and ugly about racing in 2013 (both experiences everyone had and some personal ones), not ranked, just organized in a way I saw fit.  BTW, I mostly stuck with NASCAR, INDYCAR, Formula 1, and sportscars as that was the main racing series I kept up with this year.


Tony Kanaan Finally Wins the Indy 500
It didn’t end like some would’ve preferred (bringing up that “let’s have a green-white-checkered” debate), but how can you not be thrilled to see somebody who has waited so long to win the 500? I know I was excited. Not only did TK join Emerson Fittipaldi, Helio Castroneves, and Gil de Ferran as the only Brazilians to win at Indy but he is on the Borg-Warner with two of his best friends Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon all in a row. That makes it sound even more special.

The Future of Racing Looks Bright
As the drivers that have made their marks reach the twilight and/or end of their careers, I can think of quite a few young racers throughout the world ready to make their presence known. For the next decade or so, these young drivers are going to be future of their respective series:
Ÿ         Kyle Larson
Ÿ         Erik Jones
Ÿ         Carlos Munoz
Ÿ         Mathew Brabham
Ÿ         Jordan Taylor (and his “JT Facials”)
Ÿ         Sage Karem
Ÿ         Chase Elliott
Ÿ         James Hinchcliffe
Ÿ         Bubba Wallace
Ÿ         Ryan Blaney
And a heck of a lot more people I can’t remember off the top of my head or who haven’t even been noticed yet.

BTW: Yacaman Did Calm Down
I don’t think any driver in Grand-Am was more criticized than Gustavo Yacaman early in the year. As a fan of his team, Michael Shank Racing, I will admit there were times it was warranted.
Detroit was not pretty. Not only was Memo Rojas taken out extremely early but also one of Yacaman’s teammates John Pew (who had nowhere to go and resulted in the first of two impressive rebuilds by the Shank team). Then I think he went and hit someone else later on before turning the car over to his co-driver. Yeah. He did deserve probation.
Mid-Ohio I still consider a mixed incident. Rojas was being a bit aggressive too. Obviously, with the previous incident, much of the blame (well, pretty much all of it) was placed on Gus especially when his trek through the grass and back onto the track broke an oil line and resulted in a pretty massive fire. That was crazy.
But from Watkins Glen through the series finale at Lime Rock, I saw a lot of improvement in his performance. The one that stands out the most to me was Lime Rock. Holding off Scott Pruett, one of the greatest in the series, for second is impressive. Given time, experience, and another good ride and Gus is going to surprise more people.

Some Awesome At-Track Experiences
            I was very lucky to go to three different events this year that were racing-related. The best part is I’d never been to any of these before.
            In January, I attended one day of Preseason Thunder at Daytona (Thursday became of the Fan Fest). One of the coolest experiences ever. Met some great NASCAR drivers, including my favorite, Tony Stewart. I will say that I think Kurt and Kyle Busch were two of the NICEST drivers that night. I am even more of a fan of the Busch brothers because of how nice they were.
            In March, I went to my first and only Grand-Am race at COTA. It was cold (except on pit road) but the event an extremely cool experience. The highlight for me was what I truly want to go to the race for – to meet the drivers and owner of my favorite team in person. I am a huge Michael Shank Racing fan and that fandom has grown in recent years (I’d always liked the team back when I had the Rolex 24 on at my birthday parties). I can conclude that Ozz Negri, John Pew (whom I forgot to get a picture with), and Mike Shank are three of the nicest racing people I’ve met. They’ve made me an MSR fan for life.
            In October, I attended the Grand Prix of Houston. That was a very crazy weekend (more below) but I had a great time and met several great drivers. I also attended my first Tweet Up where I met some great individuals whom I’ve had Twitter chats with for a long time. I still think the idea of moving this race to June is a bad idea. Just multiply Saturday’s weather times two. That’s a big possibility for both races that weekend. Just sayin’

Oh Yeah… I Was On a Racecar Too
            Again, a unique experience that I’d never experienced before was being one of the 200+ fans on the Michael Shank Racing #60 car at the Grand-Am series finale at Lime Rock. That was very special and another moment that makes me even more of a fan of this team. Super fan friendly with some talented drivers.


Um… Richmond?
If you don’t remember… Truex Jr. on bubble of making the Chase, Bowyer is asked if arm itches, Bowyer spins out suspiciously, Vickers suspiciously pits (radio chatter indicates confused Vickers), Truex Jr. makes Chase, Waltrip team found to be manipulating the outcome of the race, Truex Jr. taken out of Chase and Newman put in, Gordon becomes 13th Chase driver in Chicago, in the drama Truex Jr. loses NAPA as a sponsor and Waltrip is forced to downsize… That’s my brief version of what happened. And it did NOT make NASCAR or Michael Waltrip Racing look good.

An Unusually High Number of Injuries and Illness
I don’t really have to explain this so here’s a list of several notable (at least to me) injuries and illnesses that occurred and affected drivers this racing season (with the exception of two that will be referenced later):
Ÿ         Ozz Negri – broken leg, mountain biking incident – missed 3 Grand-Am races for surgery
Ÿ         Denny Hamlin – broken back, Cup series crash (Auto Club) – missed 4 Cup races
Ÿ         Ryan Briscoe – broken wrist, INDYCAR crash (Toronto)
Ÿ         Tony Stewart – broken leg, sprint car crash – missed 15 Cup races (set to return at Datyona)
Ÿ         Bobby Labonte – broken ribs, mountain biking crash – missed 3 Cup races
Ÿ         Martin Truex Jr. – broken wrist, Cup series crash (Bristol)
Ÿ         Kimi Raikkonen – back problems – missed final 2 F1 races due to surgery
Ÿ         Justin Wilson – broken pelvis, INDYCAR crash (Auto Club)
Ÿ         Brian Vickers – blood clots – missed final 3 Cup and final 4 Nationwide races
Ÿ         Trevor Bayne – diagnosed with MS

A Rough Year for My Favorite Sportscar Team
            As I pretty much stated above, I am a Michael Shank Racing fan. It was a tough season to be one. There were some big days and some rough ones. In short – having to come back form 7 laps down to finish 3rd at Daytona, the Daytona penalty, Ozz getting hurt, two major car repairs, lack of speed, the “One that Got Away” at Watkins Glen (still stings), being the only Ford team left, having to cut back to one car for 2014…
            There were some positives – while tough, that was a Daytona run that I was proud of (maybe even more than the 2012 victory), Ozz’s return (as a big fan, this was great), John’s amazing run at Mid-Ohio, Gus’ improvement, more appearances from A.J. Allmendinger and Justin Wilson, some good looking cars (thank you AERO), and the “Never Give Up” attitude.


The End of an Era and How It Ended
            I had a few gripes after the Houston race weekend but they don’t compare to how I felt after the second race. The fact that I was at what turned out to be the final race of Dario Franchitti’s career is bittersweet. His retirement due to his injuries marks the end of an era in INDYCAR racing. The man did it all and he had a few years left in him. It’s said we didn’t get to see how those final years would pan out.
            That crash itself still makes me cringe. Not only was Dario injured but so were fans and an INDYCAR official. That’s scary. That was not how you want to end an event you’ve brought back after several years absence.
            Back to Dario, I am proud to say I witnessed him win a race in person (one of the Texas races in 2011) and to be able to watch the final years of his amazing career. I’m going to miss watching him. I’m even going to miss watching he and Helio fight to be the fourth four-time Indy 500 champion.
Thank you for the memories Dario. Can’t wait to see what’s next for you.

Saying Goodbye Way Too Soon
            Maria de Villota, Sean Edwards, Jason Leffler, Roger Rodas Allan Simonson, Dick Trickle… Just to name a few.
            I feel like we as a racing community had to say goodbye to too many people in the racing world much too soon. It’s painful to say.
            To all of those in the racing community who are no longer with us, young and old, Godspeed.

One Final Blow to Make Us Say “2013 Was Rough”
            As we close out 2013, the racing community waits with fingers crossed, praying for a racing legend who is fighting for his life after a skiing accident. Hopefully the new year brings new promise and we continue to hear of improvements in Michael Schumacher’s condition.

In conclusion, 2013 had some good/great days, some bad days, and some ugly ones. Here’s to a better 2014 with more good days and less bad.

Also, keeping fighting Schumi.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Well Hello!

Wow. I almost forgot I had this blog. Not really. It's been about... Oh... 10 months since my last post. Sorry about that. As some readers may know, I am in school and my last post was just before the fall semester of junior started. Needless to say, the last two have kicked my butt and were quite an experience where I've learned a bit about myself and found out some issues that have hindered my abilities as a future motorsports journalist.

Also, personal life has gotten in the way as well with a little "family drama" that I'm not going to discuss here. Right now, almost everything's going fine.

For the record, I have watched all but one race this INDYCAR season (I was out during the first Detroit race and my DVR didn't record and it was ABC so, obviously, no replay) and I've been loving it. It's been quite a season of twists and turns with several winners, a new face (and nose) on the Borg-Warner, a tough season for Ganassi and Will Power, Andretti Autosport back as one of the series' top teams, A.J. Allmendinger (whom I decided to give a chance this year and am starting to like a bit), and a points leader who's been Mr. Consistency all year.

Am I going to start blogging frequently again? We'll see. I am over a month and a half into my (well-deserved) summer break and still have a little less than two months left. I have a lot of time on my hands.

Once the school year starts, I won't be blogging as much but I'll try especially as we getting into what I think will be a pretty cool battle for the title. My picks for the drivers involved? I think it's going to be "Helio Castroneves v. Andretti Autosport" (Hunter-Reay and possibly Hinch and/or Marco).

I'll also be attending the races at Houston in October. I can't wait. Will be there part of Friday and all of Saturday and Sunday with my family and some close friends who are like family.

Houston will be my second and third races of the year. I didn't get to attend the race at TMS for the second year in a row (hoping to finally make a return next year) but I attended the Grand-Am race at COTA in March. That was quite a racetrack experience that I promise I'll share.

While I don't have anything right now written about this INDYCAR season (I'm going to try and give out some mid-season awards sometime this week I hope), I have three blog posts waiting to be posted soon. I actually wrote them for classes but two were lost following my online class (one I plan to retake again in the future because I liked it so much) and one was never used for anything.

I've decided to change up my blog a little because I've really been into Grand-Am this season.  One of my upcoming posts is about my experience at COTA (where I got my third-ever hug from a driver along with my first team owner hug) and the other is a repost of something I wrote after this year's Rolex 24.

The other post is a mix of racing series (well three - INDYCAR, Grand-Am, and NASCAR) where I'm going to share my stories and pictures from my racer encounters over the years.

I really hope I can start blogging more frequently soon. I promise I won't be gone this long again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Take On Mid-Ohio

Mid Ohio. It will likely be the place where Scott Dixon put himself back in the championship (though problems for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves helped as well). Still, going into the final three races, we have an exciting championship battle.

Also, before I start, one comment that I wasn’t sure where it fit: I love that I actually am able to watch a race and have to beg that they go to a commercial so I could make a personal “pit stop” so I won’t miss much. You don’t get that when watching a NASCAR race. There are plenty of opportunities. Believe me.

Pre-Race: Like a majority of the pre-races have been on my local ABC affiliate this year… pre-empted for local programming again! So my review of the pre-race is nonexistent. Personally, I’m not a big fan of tuning in and them going to Mid-Ohio just in time to see the start.

The Race Broadcast: While this race was broadcast on ABC due to coverage of the Olympics, the on-air talent was similar to what fans see when they tune into a broadcast on NBC Sports Network. Actually, it was who they see on NBC Sports Network (except for Robin Miller). Due to NASCAR’s top two national series (both the Cup and Nationwide series are being shown on ESPN/ESPN2/ABC now) along with the NHRA running in three different states, the on-air motorsports talent (or “talent” according to some people) was committed so the NBC Sports crew was brought in.

I really have no major complaints about the quality of race coverage at Mid-Ohio. Yes. The camera angles could’ve shown more action in the back of the pack (because that’s where it was). But I have seen worse race coverage on ABC this season and this was not one of those races.

The Race: While Mid-Ohio wasn’t as exciting as it could’ve been (I think part of it had to do with the delayed “push-to-pass”), but all of the drivers did race clean for the most part and the championship battle got even more exciting with one contender winning, one finishing second, one running in the back most of the day, and one losing an engine. Other than that, I nearly fell asleep until there was a mention of Ryan Hunter-Reay having troubles (more about that in a bit) leading me to tweet, and I quote, “I’ve sort of woken up now.”

In conclusion, not the best race but the points standings afterwards have me extremely exciting for Sonoma.

French Connection: While the top two were familiar, usual frontrunners and they didn’t really fight for the lead on the track (just on pit road), the battle for 3rd at times was a heated one between INDYCAR’s pair of Frenchman – Sebastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud.

Bourdais, who was almost Jimmie Johnson-like in Champ Car, has had a very up and down season with Dragon Racing. He started off the year in a Lotus (but the team switched to Chevy just before Indy) and was then bumped from a full-time to part-time schedule after one of the two full-time cars was dropped in favor of one full-time car split between him and teammate, Katherine Legge (he would run on road and street courses while she ran the ovals). He also has had several potentially good races go sour due to mechanical issues or crashes that have usually not been his fault. But Mid-Ohio was a different story. Bourdais ran up towards the front of the pack most of the race and finished a solid 4th, the team’s best result since 2010 when Gil de Ferran was involved with the team.

Pagenaud’s run at Mid-Ohio showed again why many have been so high on the rookie most of the season. It also just about cemented “rookie of the year” honors for him (he has to finish 8th or better at Sonoma to clinch). But going back to Mid-Ohio, it was Pagenaud’s third podium finish of his career (all at tracks where he has American Lemans Series experience). He has still completed the most laps out of any driver this season (but does share that stat with Helio Castroneves). But really. What else is there to say about Pagenaud that hasn’t already been said this year? He ran well again at Mid-Ohio after a bit of a slump.

Pantano Fills In and Has a Decent Day: For those who didn’t know the story going into Mid-Ohio – during the test the week before at the track, Charlie Kimball was involved in a crash and suffered an injured hand that required surgery. That left the 83 Ganassi team in need of a substitute driver.

Enter, Giorgio Pantano, who was one of the drivers who filled in for Justin Wilson after his back injury last year. Pantano proved at Mid Ohio that he deserves some consideration for a full-time ride next season. He hasn’t been an INDYCAR-style car since Motegi last fall and hadn’t driven the DW-12 until the race weekend. While he only qualified 24th, he ran a fairly decent race and ended up 14th. He could very well be a part of the silly season talk for 2013.

Hunter-Reay, Castroneves Struggle: While Will Power pretty much led the entire race until the final pit stop, his closest championship rivals – Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves – had multiple issues that gave Power the points lead and have given Scott Dixon a chance to win his third INDYCAR championship.

While Hunter-Reay started 7th and was running in the top 10 most of the race, his engine began to go south. He did try to complete all 85 laps but eventually parked the car on lap 79, a nice strategy if you think about it because he will not have to suffer a 10-grid spot penalty at Sonoma (unless, of course, he ahs to change to another engine race weekend). He left Mid-Ohio with his third DNF of the year (all due to mechanical issues) and 5 points out of the championship lead.

But Castroneves arguably had the worst weekend out of the championship contenders. After winning at Edmonton and moving to 2nd in the points standings, he was never a factor for Mid-Ohio. It all started with a test the week before when he was caught up in an accident with Ed Carpenter and had little track time. Then during Saturday morning practice, Castroneves made contact with Mike Conway and suffered an injured hand/wrist. The injury, though, was not severe enough for him not to race and he was quickly cleared. Then he qualified 13th and took a 10 grid-spot penalty for an engine change. On top of all of that, he was also fighting a summer cold. Despite the setbacks, the Brazilian still managed to bring home the car in one piece with a 16th place finish but went from 2nd, 23 points out of the championship lead, to 3rd, 26 points out.

I do have to give credit to both drivers despite their rough races – Hunter-Reay and his team for smart thinking when it came to their mechanical issues and Castroneves for simply finishing the race.

Other Notables: For the second race in a row, there were no cautions… Will Power led the most laps of the race with 57 and finished 2nd, reclaiming the points lead from Hunter-Reay… Tony Kanaan overcame illness and made up 12 spots to finish 6th… Marco Andretti finished 8th, his best finish of the year on a road or street course… Hunter-Reay was the only DNF of the 25-car field… Dragon Racing’s second car will return at Sonoma with Katherine Legge behind the wheel.

After the Checkers – Dixon Wins Another and Puts Himself Back in the Title Hunt: While Power dominated the race, the final round of pit stops ultimately gave the victory to Scott Dixon. It was his second win of the year and put him within 28 points of the championship lead. Seeing Dixon win at Mid-Ohio has become a common thing in the last several years and the win helped in his bid for a third INDYCAR championship. He’s 4th in points and is, along with Castroneves, the title contender with the most experience when it comes to fighting for championships.

There is one lurking issue when it comes to his title hopes, though – mechanical reliability. Dixon (and the entire Ganassi team) has had some issues when it comes to engines, mechanical gremlins, etc. Not to mention he is on his sixth engine (one more than the allowed five-engine rule). Should he have to change engines at any point between now and Fontana, he will suffer a 10-grid spot penalty regardless of situation. Thankfully, though, his championship rivals are all on their fifth engines now and will suffer the same penalty.

Next Race: August 26
GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma
Sonoma, CA
4:30 PM ET (3:30 PM CT) – NBC Sports Network
Defending Winner: Will Power

INDYCAR 36 – August 25
Featuring Simon Pagenaud
7 PM ET (6 PM CT) following Sonoma Qualifying - NBC Sports Network
Replays at Various Times Throughout the week

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Helio's Going "Dancing" Again

About five years ago, some laughed at the thought of an INDYCAR driver on Dancing with the Stars. When Helio Castroneves joined the cast for the fifth season of the dance competition show, a lot of fans tuned in just to see how he would do. Who knew that the popular Indianapolis 500 champion wouldn’t just be able to dance, but be able to dance well? And it would get him further in the competition than some expected?

To some DWTS fans at first, he was nobody. Most the people who had heard of Helio and knew who he was were racing fans, even some casual ones who mostly remembered him because he climbs the fence in celebration of every race victory. These people were the ones voting for him before the season even began. His other “for-sure” voters were fans of Hough, who’d won in the spring with Olympic speed skater, Apolo Anton Ohno.

From the first foxtrot with professional partner, Julianne Hough, to his memorable quickstep inspired by The Mask (if you haven’t seen it; go Google it), Helio captured the hearts of fans watching at home and quickly built a fan base. Not only was his big, bright smile a factor but, for a racecar driver who’d never danced before, he was pretty good at it. Good enough to make it to the finals. And good enough to win the competion over Spice Girl, Mel B.

Many remember what has happened in the years following Helio’s win – his championship battle with Scott Dixon in 2008; his tax evasion trial and third Indy 500 victory in 2009; him publishing his autobiography, winning a few races, along with his meltdown at Edmonton in 2010; his horrendous and winless 2011 season.

Helio’s also had a few changes in his personal life. He split with his fiancĂ© during his stint on DWTS and is now in a relationship with his girlfriend, Adriana Henao, who is also the mother of their two year old daughter, Mikaella.

Life has changed on and off the track for the Brazilian since he won the coveted mirror ball trophy, a trophy that he said looked good between the pair of Baby Borgs he’d won at Indy in 2001 and 2002. Now that he won three, the display is probably a little lopsided meaning that the trophy for winning for Dancing with the Stars: All Stars would make that trophy display look more even.

Yes. Dancing with the Stars: All Stars. Helio was recently announced as a part of the cast. While some were a little annoyed that past winners were a part of the cast or that he was chosen over Mel B. (who, like some on fans’ “all-star wish lists,” had other commitments that prevented them from participating), other were pleased with his selection.

I, for one, was surprised because I’d originally heard that past winners weren’t being invited back. But I have already figured out how I’ll spend my Monday and Tuesday nights starting September 24th (I’ll be doing schoolwork while watching) until finale night or the night he gets voted off (hopefully it’ll be the former again).

With that news out of the way, I just wanted to say that Randy Bernard will, hopefully, regardless where Helio finishes this season, make certain that INDYCAR is the only racing series in the world that has produced the ONLY driver who gone on a dancing competition, danced really well (Google his dances; he was pretty good especially that quickstep), won, and was even invited back as an “all-star.”

I really do think that this can be a good way to promote INDYCAR especially going into the off-season. Yes. The sport was in mentioned in the headlines long after the season finale last season but it was for very sad reasons. Helio dancing again would produce some headlines after the September 15th finale at Fontana but it would be a non-racing story but the sport is still mentioned. Personally, I’d rather see someone with INDYCAR mentioned in the news for something like this than for something like what happened at the end of last season or for possibly breaking the law.

Helio will be joined by 12 other “all stars.” Including the season 5 champion, the cast consists of six winners, three runner-up finishers, two third place finishers, and a sixth place finisher. The other 11 confirmed cast members (and their dance partners) are:

Kelly Monaco (Season 1) and Val Chmerkoviskiy
Drew Lachey (Season 2) and Anna Trebunskaya
Emmitt Smith (Season 3) and Cheryl Burke
Apolo Anton Ohno (Season 4) and Karina Smirnoff
Joey Fatone (Season 4) and Kym Johnson
Shawn Johnson (Season 8) and Derek Hough
Gilles Marini (Season 8) and Peta Murgatroyd
Melissa Rycroft (Season 8) and Tony Dovolani
Pamela Anderson (Season 10) and Tristan McManus
Bristol Palin (Season 11) and Mark Ballas
Kirstie Alley (Season 12) and Maksim Chmerkoviskiy

The 13th cast member is currently being voted on DWTS fans and will be revealed at a later date (along with their dance partner). The three potential cast members are:
Sabrina Bryan (Season 5)
Kyle Massey (Season 11)
Carson Kressley (Season 13)

My thought on the “all stars” chosen – it’s a pretty talented group (though I’m unsure how two of the contestants are considered stars but I won't go into that). While it will be a little bit tougher this time, there is that chance that the fans came come through this again. It was revealed earlier this week that Helio will be paired with Chelsie Hightower this season. While Chelsie is no Julianne Hough and doesn’t have a mirror ball trophy (her best finish was 4th in Season 8 with Ty Murray) yet but with Helio, it’s possible that she can win her first trophy.

But they can’t do it alone. They’ll need the votes especially against some of the heavy hitters this season. So once the INDYCAR season ends, get ready and vote for “Team Chelio” (the currently unofficial name for Helio and Chelsie this season). And don’t forget to recruit other racing fans and your family and friends too.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Four to Go - Who's In, Who's Out, Who Has a Chance

Personally, I hate saying this but it’s true – after Edmonton, we have four races to go before the 2012 season is over and a new champion is crowned. Since we’ve had a nice little off-week between Edmonton and Mid-Ohio, I decided to breaking down the championship battle focusing on the drivers in, out, and those who just have a fighting chance for this year’s title.

Who’s In?
As of right now, I’m thinking that any combination of these three drivers will be in the title hunt come Fontana (with one or more of the drivers in the next category possibly mixed in as well). All three have been strong all season long and have scored 8 victories combined out of the 11 races this year. These will be the three drivers to watch at Mid-Ohio because any of them could leave with the points lead.

Ryan Hunter-Reay (Current Points Leader with 362 points)
He opened the season with a podium and was up and down until a three-win streak during races 8 through 10 (and poor finishes from the championship leader) propelled the American from 7th in championship points all the way to the lead. Hunter-Reay is in his third season at Andretti Autosport and has put the team in a situation that they haven’t been in since 2007 – contending for a championship. With 3 wins, 5 podiums, 5 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s, and an average finish of 8.0 this season, Hunter-Reay has been solid despite 2 DNF’s due to mechanical issues. He is strong on both types of racing circuits coming up and is racing for a champion-caliber team (who have three titles won in 2004, 2005, and 2007), but he does have one weakness – while his two closest rivals are from a rival team; they have also been in more than one championship fight in their INDYCAR careers. Hunter-Reay has not fought for a championship in this series. Will nerves get the best of him or can he overcome them to become the first American INDYCAR champion since 2006?

Helio Castroneves (23 behind Hunter-Reay)
Call him “Mr. Consistency” because that has been one of the biggest factors in Castroneves’ latest championship run. After a nightmarish winless 2011, the Brazilian has finished no worse than 17th all season, has finished every race, and has completed all but three laps all season (tying him with rookie, Simon Pagenaud). His record this season has been pretty solid as well – 2 wins, 3 podiums, 4 top 5’s, 9 top 10’s (the most of any driver this season), and an average finish of 6.7 (the best out of all full-season drivers this year). Not only has Castroneves had strong results this season; he also has experience on his side. He is in his 14th season and has already made many accomplishments, including 3 Indianapolis 500 victories, he has never won a championship. But it has not been from a lack of effort. He has been in the mix more than once against several different championship-caliber drivers – including his own teammates but has come up short every time.  Will this be the year that he finally scores that long-awaited title?

Will Power (26 behind Hunter-Reay)
He held the points lead from Race 3 until Race 10 when he lost the lead to Hunter-Reay. Power, who has been in the mix the last two seasons, is now the chaser in this championship with ground to make up. One factor that will assist the Australian in his quest for a first championship after coming up short to Franchitti in both 2010 and last year is that three of the final four races will on road or street courses – his forte. Despite one win on an oval (the second duel race at Texas last year), his oval record is not as stellar as his championship rivals’ (his only DNF’s this season – 2 – both occurred due to crashes on ovals). With 3 victories, 4 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s, and an average finish of 9.4 this season, Power is a huge threat for the championship but has one challenge coming up – racing at Auto Club Speedway, an oval, in the final race of the season. Like I said – Power’s strongest track layout is a road or street course.  If he can perform well at the final three this season, he’ll still have to survive the 500-mile finale. Can he do it?

Who Still Has a Chance?
Yes. It’s a bit of a long-shot for these three drivers (the only one I see with a legitimate chance is Dixon), but it’s amazing what can happen in a race or two. These guys, right now, if good luck comes their way and bad luck befalls the current contenders, they can be right back in this championship hunt. And the best way to do that would be winning.

Scott Dixon (61 behind Hunter-Reay)
The only reason the 2-time series champion isn’t in the same category as the drivers listed above him is because of one issue – engine reliability. Dixon is on his sixth engine. The allotted number was five. Every additional engine change he makes this season, regardless of reasoning or timing of engine change (based on what I get from the rule), will result in a 10-grid spot penalty. While Dixon is a very competitive, accomplished champion-caliber driver with 1 win (Belle Isle) this season, if he can make up positions lost if any additional engines have to be changed and maybe pull off another win or two, he is right back in the hunt.

James Hinchcliffe (76 behind Hunter-Reay)
The term “sophomore slump” has not applied to the Canadian this year. What’s actually a bigger story is how he came to race the GoDaddy.com car. When Danica vacated the ride at the end of the 2011 season, the intended driver was the late Dan Wheldon, who was a great fit for the GoDaddy brand. Out of the available drivers who could fill Danica’s heels and now Wheldon’s fancy Pumas, Hinch was the perfect choice with his engaging and entertaining personality. Along with being a great face for the sponsor, he’s had a pretty good season too and a mechanical failure.

Tony Kanaan (83 behind Hunter-Reay)
There have been a lot of changes in recent years for the 2004 champion especially regarding his racing career. But none of the issues regarding changing teams (twice during one off-season) and a winless streak that dates back to 2010 have damaged the Brazilian’s popularity. If it weren’t for two finishes near the back of the field at the beginning of the season, he could’ve likely been able to snatch the championship. Sadly, without a win, it sounds like Kanaan will be denied another chance to win a championship.

Who’s Out?
In reality, with the points system as it, I really feel like only the top 6 in points has a true fighting chance at this championship with four to go. Can you write these four off completely though? I personally think you can. But that doesn’t mean that any of these guys can still play a factor in this championship battle because they can outrun the title contenders by taking wins, podiums, and points away from the top dogs.

Simon Pagenaud (86 behind Hunter-Reay)
While the Frenchman will likely be crowned “Sunoco Rookie of the Year” and at various points this season had a chance to potentially pull off a huge upset in the championship, Pagenaud’s fizzled. While he has 6 top 10’s in 11 starts this year (including scoring his first podium at Long Beach back in April and a Kanaan-esque charge from last to 5th at Iowa) and is tied with Castroneves for most laps completed this season, his five other finishes are 12th or worse. His streak of finishing all races also came to a halt after being punted on the final lap at Edmonton and finishing 20th, his worst finish of the year. He has an opportunity to finish in the top 5 in points, which would be an impressive fete for a rookie running for a one-car team, his championship homes have gone out the window.  

Dario Franchitti (104 behind Hunter-Reay)
Did anyone see this coming? Last year’s champion (and the year before and the year before that and the year before the year he skipped to try his hand at NASCAR) is out of this year’s hunt. Despite his win at Indianapolis in May, Franchitti has had a dismal season. After four years (not counting the season he was not there) of winning races and finishing well, the magic has not been there this year for the four-time champion. Nobody knows exactly what’s wrong. Has he struggled with the new car? Is his career on the downturn? Or is he just having one of those years where nothing goes right for him? I sure don’t know why.

Everyone Else (125 or more points behind Hunter-Reay)
I feel for all of the Briscoe fans, Rahal fans, Servia fans, and the fans of everyone else outside of the top 8 in points. But please don’t let that stop you from cheering on your driver, whomever they may be. Like I said before, some of them have the chance to pull off a win before the season is over.

Has My Championship Prediction Changed?
I said in my “halfway through the season” post that I predicted that Will Power would win this championship. That was before Ryan Hunter-Reay’s winning streak and Helio Castroneves’ consistency overtook him in the points standings. That was when I really took a look at and compared the trio’s statistics. All three of them have reasons to think they could win this title but there are also strikes against them. I do think history will factor into this. I’ll delve into why I think this next month before Fontana. But right now, I think experience will play into this championship fight. Helio Castroneves will finally be an INDYCAR champion.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

My Take On the Canada Races

Toronto and Edmonton marked Races 10 and 11 in this year’s INDYCAR season. Because I’m lazy and never got around to giving each race my undivided attention (but I did watch both), I decided to combine the two.

Pre-Race: I’m going to be short, sweet, and to-the-point when it comes to the Toronto pre-race – I have no comment. I didn’t get to see it! I continue to become more irritated with my local ABC as time goes on.

The Race Broadcast: I’m not going to bother with ABC. I’ve had enough both with my local affiliate and with the pair of commentators in the TV booth. I’m to a point where I barely listen to Marty and Scott anymore. The pit reporting, though, is good. Vince Welch and Rick DeBruhl are excellent but the biggest bright spot of any ABC INDYCAR broadcast is the lovely Jamie Little. She is simply fantastic. She shows so much enthusiasm every race and really knows who and what she’s talking about. Sending my well wishes to Jamie and her husband as they await the arrival of their first child, a son, next month.

The Race: The Toronto race was not too bad. It wasn’t the best twisty of the year but it was good. And the lack of carnage this year compared to seasons past was nice. Of course then they had that final restart (see below). But, all in all, it was good.

Final Restart Mayhem: Remember all the praise the drivers had been given most of the year for having pretty clean and non-eventful double-file restarts. Well, that came to an end at Toronto after what turned out to be the final restart of the race produced several incidents involving multiple cars. I really don’t have a full take on it. I don’t know what caused them to restart and drive like a bunch of crazy drivers. They’re better than the restart indicated.

Charlie Kimball Scores Best Career Finish: While Kimball is on the Ganassi “B Team”, he has had some respectable runs and has outrun both Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti on several occasions this season (yes, most of them have been due to their mechanical failures or crashes but you gotta give the boy credit). When the dust settled after the final restart, Kimball finished 2nd, his best career finish.

I was pleased to see Charlie score his first podium. I met at TMS last year (simply because we walked by the Novo Nordisk display and he was signing autographs at the time). Nice guy. Now I don’t expect him to be the next in line to take over the 9 or 10 anytime soon (I anticipate the ride going to Graham Rahal or Simon Pagenaud depending on when the ride is vacated) but you gotta give him props. With some more track time, he can be another American in contention to win every week.

Conway and Foyt Are On the Podium too: I’ll admit it – I was raised with the idea that A.J. Foyt was the best open wheel racer ever (now that I’m a young adult I agree with the statement). I always find myself rooting for the Foyt team. This first season with Mike Conway behind the wheel has not gone too well. While he’s had two previous top 10’s this season (7th at Barber and 9th at Belle Isle), Conway’s season can be summed up in two words – bad luck. The team has fallen victim to mechanical gremlins this year and who can forget the accident with Will Power at Indianapolis.

I was pleased to see the 14 car finish 3rd. As I said before, I like A.J. He’s a legend. I also like Mike Conway. He typically causes little drama and seems to be a nice guy but he’s had crazy things happen to him mostly not of his own doing. Hopefully, we will see more positive finish from this team and driver at the final races.

Other Notables: Push-to-Pass returned at Toronto and will be in use in the final road/street course events this season… The top 10 was represented by 10 different teams… Ryan Hunter-Reay led the most laps… Helio Castroneves scored only his second top 10 at Toronto (he finished 10th in 1998)… Simon Pagenaud was penalized 30 seconds post-race for blocking Josef Newgarden… Scott Dixon had an engine failure and has gone to a sixth engine (the limit is 5 with penalties for each additional change regardless of reason).

After the Checkers – Hunter-Reay Makes It Three-In-A-Row: I’m starting to sound like a broken record here. Ryan Hunter-Reay won at Toronto and snatched the points lead from Will Power. I can’t think of much more to say than that. It was a Hunter-Reay win which meant my brother (who claims to be a fan but owns a Marco Andretti shirt) suddenly expresses interest in INDYCAR. That’s the only thing new to say.

INDYCAR 36: The episode shown during the Toronto weekend featured the series’ only owner-driver, Ed Carpenter, at Iowa. I actually missed the first run but DVR’d it late one evening and recently watched it. Another good show. It was nice not only to see the at-track action but also see Ed, his wife Heather, and their two children (she’s expecting their third in December) at a local amusement park.

Pre-Race: I saw the Edmonton pre-race in its entirety. The Scott and Emma Dixon segment was the highlight for me. I love this INDYCAR couple. Robin Miller’s grid run was again poorly timed. Come on NBC. Time it as well as you did at Texas. That was the best one! Thank goodness none of the drivers who were interviewed were hard to understand with their helmets on!

The Race Broadcast: As for NBC Sports, they aren’t perfect but they are excellent at calling races. The “push-to-pass” talk was a little excessive but after hearing so little about it at Toronto, it was nice to see how it played into the race strategy at Edmonton (and it did). I look forward to listening to this group even as they cover next Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio on ABC (thank you NASCAR for having your Cup and Nationwide races in two different locations next weekend).

The Race: This Edmonton race ranks (for me at least) as one of the best non-oval races of the year, right up there with Barber and Long Beach. While the race lacked cautions, the racing was excellent with quite a bit of passing and strategy mixed together. And it was fun to see two of the smaller teams run very strong though the race ultimately ended with a Penske victory.

No Cautions; None; Nada: Just weeks after Bruton Smith mentioned that he wanted to see more cautions in NASCAR to make the racing more exciting, INDYCAR went and had none at Edmonton and the result was a great race. While the drivers were drawn out, the racing was still excellent and push-to-pass plus the talent of this year’s field created some fantastic passes and entertained the fans. Take that Bruton!

One of Sato’s Best Races to Date: Any minute I was expecting one of Takuma Sato’s many risky passes that could’ve potentially his and/or the leader’s race. I was proven wrong and was impressed with the way the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan driver performed at Toronto. This was his best race of the year. He raced clean, did not make any (stupid) mistakes, and finished 2nd. This is a far cry from the Sato we saw early in his INDYCAR career where he (and/or E.J. Viso and/or Mario Moraes) were crashing race after race. He should be proud (as should RLL). If Sato can continue to race like this, that first victory should be coming his way soon.

A Local Boy Runs Strong but Fades Late: I loved the roar of the crowd when Quebec native Alex Tagliani took the lead from Dario Franchitti on lap 1 and was glad to see him led 49 of the 75 laps. At a single-car team in its first full-time season, the casual fan wouldn’t expect to see the Bryan Herta Autosport car up front much but since dumping Lotus before Indianapolis, they’ve only finished outside the top 10 twice (12th at Indy and a mechanical failure at Iowa).  Though the final pit stop caused Tagliani to lose the lead and tires caused him to fade to 5th by the end, the 98 team should be proud. They could easily score a win before this season is over.

Other Notables: Will Power came back from a 17th place starting spot following an engine change to finish 3rd… Ryan Hunter-Reay finished 7th but retains the points lead… Simon Pagenauad’s streak of 0 DNF’s came to an end after being turned by Charlie Kimball on the final lap, causing the rookie to finish 20th, his worst finish of the year… The only remaining drivers who have finished every race this season are Ed Carpenter and Helio Castroneves.

After the Checkers – Redemption is Sweet for Castroneves: I don’t think I have to talk about 2010 here. Most of the readers here know what happen (if you don’t know, search “Helio Castroneves Edmonton 2010” on YouTube; very entertaining deal). Most Helio fans (including myself) still feel that he won that race. Now, two years after making the ESPN highlight reel for several days, Helio finally won at Edmonton fair and square with no issues. The win was the 27th win of his career (28 to those who count Edmonton 2010). This win also showed that Castroneves is a title contender as he’s moved up from 3rd to 2nd in the points standings only 23 behind Hunter-Reay.

INDYCAR 36: As for the episode shown during Sunday’s action from Edmonton, one of the series Canadian guys, James Hinchcliffe, at his hometown race in Toronto. I really think this was the best episode and not just because I’m a resident of Hinchtown. The episode really showed Hinch’s true personality and it’s an entertaining one. This guy really can be a big star both on and off the track (look for him to be the recognizable face in the series after Helio hangs up his helmet).

Next Race: August 5
Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
Lexington, OH
1 PM ET (12 PM CT) – ABC (but broadcast by NBC Sports Crew)
Defending Winner: Scott Dixon

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My take on Iowa

Iowa Speedway. I love this track and this INDYCAR series race. The racing has never disappointed and Saturday night was no exception.

Pre-Race: For the second race in a row, another pre-race/rain delay. I confess that I didn’t watch as much as I normally do because my mom and I were watching (and DVR’ing) the Daytime Emmys in the bedroom. Don’t judge! I keep up with two soap operas and an actress from each show took home trophies. Not to mention I was switching between the two televisions to see what was going on. From what I saw, NBC Sports and its broadcasters made do and we had a decent rain delay show but it could’ve been better. That’s actually one thing ABC can do better: make use of rain delays.

The Race Broadcast: Normally, broadcasts this year on the NBC Sports Network have been great but Iowa’s just wasn’t as good as the previous broadcasts. I did enjoy Tommy Kendall in the booth and would like to see him again. It was also a nice touch when Dario Franchitti came in after his troubles. Still, the broadcast of the race was not horrible and NBC Sports still beats ABC as the better INDYCAR broadcaster and I am again disappointed about Toronto being on ABC next week.

The Race: Two words – great racing. A lot of passing and a lot of “hold your breath” moments at times. But it was entertaining to watch. This was one of the more bizarre races this year and was crazy from beginning to end, but was fantastic. I found the Iowa Corn 250 to be the best race of the year so far just edging out the Firestone 550k at Texas.

Heat Races: The first time, the starting lineup for the Iowa Corn 250 was determined by three heat races, the first two determining odd and even numbered positions 9-25 and the final determining the top 8 starting positions – all set by practice speeds. The first heat set even-numbered positions 10-24 and was won by Graham Rahal. The second heat set odd-numbered positions 9-25 and was won by Tony Kanaan. The final heat was won by Dario Franchitti, who was awarded the pole position, but that was the highlight of his weekend in Iowa (see next section).

Though I did not like that they were tape-delayed, I enjoyed the heat races and hope they can eventually become the normal quialifying procedure for all non-Indy ovals. There does need to be something at stake – point and/or money – and I think the winners of the first two heats should also be able to run for the pole instead of positions on the 5th row.

Franchitti’s Race Ends Before It Begins: I think the 2012 Iowa Corn 250 wins an award for one of the most bizarre parade laps ever. First, Alex Tagliani stops on the track (something that has occurred before this season). Then, out of nowhere, Dario Franchitti is on the apron with a blown engine! This was just the latest in a season of mostly bad luck for this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner. I’m still sticking with my gut feeling that he will NOT be repeating this year. At this point, it would take a lot of podiums, especially wins, and there would have to be some pretty rotten things happen to those currently in the title hunt.

A Shakeup In the Championship Battle: (note: I am only focusing on the top 8 because I feel that a combination of one or more in this group will be in the championship title fight at the final race)

In my opinion, we might be going to back to Iowa to remind us why a certain driver or drivers is or is not in the title hunt come Fontana. This race really shook up the points with Will Power and James Hinchcliffe’s on-track incidents and Dario Franchitti’s engine failure and Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Tony Kanaan all having good nights.

While Power retained his tight grip on the points lead, Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Castroneves, Hinchcliffe (despite his accident), and Pagenaud are all within 40 points of the top spot (a maximum number of points a driver can earn per race is 50). At this point, any of these six, depending on each other’s performance in Toronto, could go into the second race North of the Border with the points lead. Kanaan and Franchitti both have the chance, especially with their experience, to add themselves to the group, but will have to win and rely on their competitors struggling to make themselves legitimate title contenders.

So, the top 6 consists of the guy who really played Jean Girard in Talladega Nights, “The Mayor” and GoDaddy Guy, the only driver to own a mirror ball trophy in all of motorsports, “The Ice Man,” the only American in contention for the title, and the king of the road and street courses with Mr. Ashley Judd and INDYCAR’s fittest driver with the biggest nose right behind. Who’s your pick?

Pagenaud Pulls a Kanaan: If you really think about it, did you think that Simon Pagenaud would be this strong on ovals this season? Me neither. After starting last in the field (25th) due to an engine change, Pagenaud made up 20 positions to finish 5th but ran as high as 3rd at one point. This Tony Kanaan-esque performance (for those who don’t watch frequently, Kanaan is known for runs from the back like this) was impressive especially for a rookie with very little oval experience. With INDYCAR returning to road and street courses events from Toronto through Baltimore, there is a high possibility that this “rookie” (I’m starting to doubt the classification because he’s run so well and should be named “rookie of the year” come Fontana) will be making his first of many trips to victory lane.

Other Notables: The first 9 laps were run under caution… Marco Andretti finished 2nd, his first podium and best finish of the year… Tony Kanaan finished 3rd, his second podium finish of the year… Helio Castroneves, who was credited with starting 1st after Franchitti’s engine problems, led the most laps with 133, finishing 6th due to tires fading at the end... The race ended under caution due to an accident involving Katherine Legge

After the Checkers – Hunter-Reay Makes It Two-In-A-Row: At the end of the race, it was Ryan Hunter-Reay scoring his second win in a row. Does two-in-a-row make him a championship contender? It all depends on how he does at the final races this season. He is 2nd in points behind Will Power and within 3 points of the top spot. Yes. There is an chance.

INDYCAR 36: This week’s featured driver was Charlie Kimball. I have yet to watch the entire episode but from what I saw, it was good. I like Charlie but he has struggled so far in his INDYCAR career so far. That does not take away from his seemingly pleasant personality (I met him at Texas Motor Speedway last summer and he was very nice) and his inspiration for those whose life is affected by diabetes.

Next Race: July 8
Honda Toronto Indy
Streets of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
1 PM ET (12 PM CT) - ABC
Defending Winner: Dario Franchitti

INDYCAR 36 – July 8
Featuring Ed Carpenter
7:30 PM ET (6:30 PM CT) - NBC Sports Network
Replays at Various Times Throughout the week