Weird, Wild, Wonderful- The 101st Indianapolis 500

I have seen a lot of 500’s, but never one as strange as this one.  There were really three parts to this one, each with its own subplot. There was great racing, there were horrific accidents, and there was  a great finish.  If you were in a pool where you had to pick the top ten, you probably didn’t fare well.  No one else in the pool did either.

The first 50 laps had some of the best, cleanest racing I’ve ever seen at Indy. There was passing galore and blinding speed. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was sure fun. After the first yellow and the ensuing red flag, there was no flow to the race. Cautions came with regularity, interrupting any chance at a rhythm.  Many of the accidents seemed more severe than usual this year.

My seat was right in front of the Howard/Dixon accident.  It was one of the most horrific accidents I have seen at the Speedway. I would rank it second behind the 1964 lap 2 accident. I’m  talking about accidents that were in my view from my seat. The flying car and and flying debris were frightening. Fortunately all the safety features of the track and the car did their job. It was a relief when Dixon got out of what was left of the car. More on this in the notes.

Eleven cautions will chop up any race.  Several yellows were just a few laps apart. While this changes race strategies, it does not help the racing.  What it did, however, was set up a terrific finish.  In the end , Takuma Sato erased the disappointment of his failed attempt to win the 2012 race.

The last twelve laps were great. After the cleanup from a wild five car melee, Max Chilton gamely tried to hold his lead,  but he had more fuel than he needed and his tires probably cooled too much during the yellow. Chilton had pitted before everyone else so his tires had less life in them. It came down to a shootout between Sato and Helio Castroneves. When Sato took the lead with 5 to go, he was able to hold off Castroneves for a popular win. Sato’s unbridled screaming on the radio was a joy to listen to. Quite a contrast from Rossi’s stunned shock last year. Rossi, however, grew into a great champion, and Sato will also be a very good one.

Overall, it was a good race, not a great one.  With fewer cautions this race had the makings of a classic. There was the drama of contenders dropping out, unexpected drivers surging to the front, amazing rookie performances, and a furious duel to the finish.  The 500 continues continues to be the best race of the year.

Notes:

The Howard/Dixon accident emphasized the need for some form of cockpit protection. A piece of Dixon’s car nearly landed on Howard’s head, and Dixon’s car almost landed on Castroneves. I am not in favor of completely closed canopies, but something over the driver’s head should be developed. The outcome may have been worse had Dixon hit a fence post. He broke the fence above the tunnel entrance. Fortunately it didn’t appear anyone was walking or driving in the open area at the time.  A net over the tunnel might be a good safety addition.

What was the deal with Tony George and, “Drivers Start Your Engines?” That is NOT how you start the 500. Other races, yes. Not this one. IMS needs a rethink on this issue.

Jim Cornelison did a fantastic job singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” and arrangements should be made to have him sing it every year.

Fernando Alonso proved what a talented driver he is. He adapted and learned quickly all month.  He figured out how to race here quickly and looked very smooth all day.  He had a most impressive rookie month. Alonso adapted to the hectic schedule of Indy and enjoyed it all. His return is not a sure thing yet, but I hope we see him here again.  Alonso brought an electricity to the Speedway I haven’t felt from a driver in a long time.

Ed Jones also deserves a shout out as a rookie. Jones has had a great season so far and did very well all month, finishing third in the race.  I was skeptical of how he would do in Indycar as I had attributed his Indy Lights success to being with Carlin. But he has talent. Watch out for him the rest of the year.

Honda engines continued their unreliability. Ten engines were lost in May, including those in the Grand Prix. The three blown engines Sunday belonged to contenders. Andretti seems to have had more than their share of lost engines this year.  They were going for power over reliability. This decision could have championship implications. It is a trend to keep an eye on as the series moves to Detroit.

I do not enjoy the breaks in the opening ceremonies. They take away from what used to be a dramatic buildup to the start.  The ceremonies need to be shortened and put in one block culminating with the start.

The points battle has really tightened up. Castroneves leads with three drivers just eleven points behind.  Look for another new leader after Belle Isle. The six Indycar races to date have had six different winners.  It is hard to believe Scott Dixon is not one of them. There may not be a definitive leader until after Iowa.

Michael Andretti couldn’t win the 500 as a driver, but he now has tied Lou Moore for second place with five wins as an owner. Andretti cars has won five times in thirteen years, and three of the last four.   Sato’s only two career wins have come in Indycar’s most prestigious events, Long Beach and Indianapolis.

 

 

101st 500 Preview- Almost as Many Storylines as the Number of Races

An international star, engine reliability, a struggling power team, and  an intriguing front row have come together to create what should be a competitive, compelling race on Sunday.  All these factors should come into play at some point during the race. Fernando Alonso has created quite a buzz as he goes into his first race. He seems to be comfortable in the car and on the track. Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves look for the final piece of their legacies.  Honda teams hope they have engines that will go the distance. Local hero Ed Carpenter couldn’t win the race from either of his pole starts, but he is hoping that starting second works out better. Alexander Rossi, the defending champion, backs up his title with a front row start.

Alonso has been Indy’s media star this month.  The international exposure hasn’t hurt.  He has done very well so far. I expect him to do well in the  race, and finish in the top ten, perhaps even a top five.  Pit stops will be a key factor for him as well as race traffic. During Monday’s practice he seemed very much at ease passing other cars. How he handles the flying start in a three wide formation may tell us how his race might go.

Honda cars very much have the advantage at the track, but their engines have had issues during the month.  At least five have blown, including two in the Grand Prix.  Can one last the distance and win? Alonso’s engine had a precautionary change before qualifying Sunday. Honda also lost a strong contender with Sebastien Bourdais’ crash last Saturday.

Team Penske has symbolized the struggles Chevy has had this month. They seem to have less straight line speed than the Hondas.  Chevrolet entries had trouble keeping pace with the Hondas Monday.  Will Power,  Ed Carpenter , J.R. Hildebrand, and Sage Karam seem to be the best of the bowties.  Still, I look for the Penske cars of Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Josef Newgarden to be players toward the middle of the race. I think Montoya will move up quickly.

Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, and Ryan Hunter-Reay  are the strongest Hondas. Hunter-Reay will be in the top five very quickly, and will battle for the lead after the first stop. If the Andretti team can avoid the gremlins that have plagued their cars all season, the race will be between these three.  In Monday’s practice, Dixon and Kanaan looked the strongest on track.

Ed Carpenter will contend early. If he can stay out of trouble, he will be one to watch near the end.  He has the speed to stay with the Hondas. His teammate Hildebrand should also also be in the mix.  We may see an early charge to the front by Carpenter unless Dixon pulls away at the start.

Dark horses- Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Alonso, and Ed Jones should all have great days. Jones has been quietly going about his rookie season. I would not dismiss his chances for a good finish.  Rossi will provide a strong title defense. Marco could erase years of frustration and set up for a decent season.

Turn 2-  This was a challenging part of the track last weekend. In addition to the terrifying Bourdais crash, several cars clipped the wall in nearly the same spot. The wall in front of the Fuzzy’s suite may not stay white for long. I hope everyone gets through on lap 1.

Oh yes- I’m supposed to make a prediction. I am going against recent history here. Scott Dixon will win his second 500.  He has not had the engine issues other Hondas have had.  It has been eight years since we’ve had a winner from pole, so the timing is right. It has also been six years since someone has won from the first three rows.  He will lead the majority of laps, but this will not be an easy win.

The rest of the race:

Rookie of the Year– Fernando Alonso will probably win this, although Ed Jones will make a very strong case for himself.

Cautions-  7 for 55 laps.

Highest Placing Chevy– Will Power, a top 5

First out-  Jack Harvey

 

Race Week-My Love/Hate Relationship

I both love and hate race week. There is unbridled excitement. By Wednesday people find me annoying. (That late? you’re asking).  There is stress, mainly worrying about the weather, but also getting preparations done in time.

I vow every year to not worry or even listen to anything weather related until Wednesday, and not take a forecast seriously until Thursday. How does that work out?  Well… Monday I might sneak a peek at the weather app and close it quickly.

Tuesday I do the same thing. If I see a sun, my anxiety goes down. A hint of cloud sets me off in a panic. Then Wednesday i became Mr. Meteorology. I start talking like I’m an anchor on the Weather Channel. I really want a full, dry,  uninterrupted race.

It’s not all stress. I have daily rituals leading up to Friday morning. Going to Carb Day helps make the week shorter. Here is a diary of my daily routine, beginning right after qualifications end:

Sunday night:  Come home, watch the qualifying show on dvr, get ready for Monday final practice.

Monday: Glance at weather app, close it quickly, start rain panic no matter what it says. My philosophy- it will get worse. Cut starting lineup from newspaper and start learning positions.

Tuesday: Glance at weather app, get in more panic mode, locate rain gear. make supply list for the track and our pre-race party.

Wednesday: Study weather forecast and start freaking out. Where did the sun icon go? Bring it back! Shop for supplies. Place race ticket in ticket holder and place in car. I’m negotiating to have this ceremony live-streamed.

Thursday: More party preparations. Start tracking the monsoon heading this way from China. The timing always looks bad. Await the arrival of friends coming in for Carb Day.

Friday: Carb Day! the weather looks good for the whole weekend! Maybe. Celebrate the day and go to the Burger Bash at night.

Saturday: Legends Day. Vintage cars on track, drivers’ meeting, hanging out anticipating the next day.  A sense of resignation sets in that whatever weather happens is what I deal with. Get ready for pre-race party.  Get three hours of sleep, then

RACE DAY!

Usually, it’s not as bad as i think it will be, but I’m sure I’ve subtracted 20 years from my life worrying about getting the race in. One year I will enjoy race week without any stress. That will be the year I am not going.

 

 

500 Qualification Recap- The Iceman Speedeth

First, a word about Saturday. Incidents like Sebastien Bourdais had and the ensuing dread that accompanies it5 are the price we fans pay for loving racing so much. These things will will happen occasionally. I am glad they happen with much less frequency than they used to.That does not make these things any easier. That was one of the five worst crashes I have witnessed in person at the Speedway.  It was a relief to hear today that Bourdais is improving and should recover from his injuries.

Thanks to Tony George for the SAFER Barrier and the Holmatro Safety team for their outstanding work.  Two drivers’ lives have been saved by them over the last three seasons.

Now, for today. It was wonderful to see speed return to IMS.  The fastest qualifying laps and average  in 21 years gave Scott Dixon the pole for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500. It is Dixon’s third pole and second in three years.  Ed Carpenter will start second, his third front row in five years.  Alexander Rossi, the defending champion, starts third.  This is a very strong front row.

Honda dominated the Fast Nine with six entries. The Chevrolets in the final, shootout will start second, sixth ( J. R. Hildebrand), and ninth (Will Power).

Overall, not a great qualifying day for Team Penske. After Power in ninth, the next fastest qualifier was Juan Pablo Montoya, who will start eighteenth. Do not dismiss them for the race, however. They will make their presence known.

Dixon’s first lap of 232.595 was the fastest single lap since 1996, and his four lap average of 232.164 also was the best since Arie Luyendyk set the record.

Other notable efforts today-

Fernando Alonso will start fifth in his first 500. His crew had to change the engine in the 29 car after the morning practice. The crew should also get a mention for quickness as it just slightly more than an hour to make the switch.

Rookie Ed Jones will start eleventh.  He had to be thinking of his teammate Bourdais on today’s run, but handled it like a veteran.

Buddy Lazier turned his fastest laps of the week and will start thirtieth.

Notes:

James Davison will replace Bourdais in car 18. That car did not appear today and will start last. There are rules in place that cover this situation.

I saw genuine excitement and heard more cheering today from the fans than I have in a long time on a qualifying day. The high speeds really had people enthused. I hope the series finds a way to increase speed safely.

I plan to post every day through Friday this week.  It’s finally Race Week!

Qualifying Preview- A Toss-Up; Lots of Questions After a Weird Week of Practice

I have never seen a practice week where no one driver stood out consistently. As a team, Andretti was probably the strongest overall.  Today, with the qualifying boost,  Only one Chevy, Juan Pablo Montoya, was in the top 10.

So, who will win the pole? I have no idea. The last row is easier to predict than the front row. It appears both Chevy and Honda were both holding back a bit this week.  I can’t believe the Penske cars are as slow as they were today.  I’m not sure the Coyne cars will replicate today’s speeds.  Sebastien Bourdais was fastest today  with a tow and Ryan Hunter-Reay fastest without one.  A pole for Bourdais gets him back in the points chase.It would help Hunter-Reay make up some ground from his DNFs .

Ganassi cars have been very quiet. They seemed to be very excited about getting the race started, but haven’t really been to the front much.

Schmidt_Peterson Motorsports seems to be coming together. Both James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin had good runs today, as did Jay Harvey, who led Thursday’s practice.

This weekend will be very intriguing. Who was sandbagging? Who showed all they had? Has Honda solved the engine issue that has bitten several teams, including at least one in the Grand Prix last weekend?

We will have all the answers by Sunday evening. Next week I will have several posts, including my mostly inaccurate race predictions.

Notes:

Jim McElreath, 1962 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, died Thursday at the age of 89. McElreath was a popular driver, started 15 times in the 500, with a best finish of third in1966. He had six top 10 finishes. His last 500 was in 1980.

Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach were unhurt in crashes late this afternoon. their crews have a lot of work to do to be ready for tomorrow. Pigot may have to go to a spare tub.

No Fear, No Knowledge

By Marti Strum

Note: Marti Strum writes today’s post about her 2-seater ride Wednesday. The above photo is before the ride, the bottom photo is afterwards. I will have my qualifying preview out early tomorrow morning. Enjoy the ride.

I was offered a once in a lifetime experience to take a 2-seater ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I said, “Yes”, omitting the “Hell’ because I’m a lady.

Everyone kept asking me, “Are you afraid?’

‘No, I trust the driver.”

I felt assured. It would not be like riding with Mike when he’s worried about being late, or trying to find a place in strange town. This had to be less scary than a work day commute with drivers on cell phones, running late, with other things on their minds. So, no, I wasn’t afraid of riding with a professional driver under controlled conditions.

After I put on my fire suit and could barely move my legs I had to walk down some stairs and stand in the sun for about 40 minutes, I became afraid- that I would pass out and people would say it was from anxiety.

I had fun while standing in line talking to the guy next to me.  It was his first 2-seater ride as well. His company offered him the opportunity and he took it. He was a little bit anxious. We chatted and I told him about when I went skydiving.  he said he hated heights and wouldn’t even ride a roller coaster. Here I was trying to calm him down but making his anxiety worse, so i stopped talking. I’ve been told many times it will help things if I stop talking.

We were about three people away from getting in the car. We had just begun to put on our helmets when the PA started for the day. They played “Taps.” I tapped my new friend and told him what they were playing.

“Oh God,” he said, “that’s it. I’m going home!”He stayed.

Was it scary? I would say it was thrilling. All my senses were in overdrive. My mind boggled at how fast the car was going in just a quarter of a mile – about 100 miles an hour. (Passenger cars get to 40-50 mph in that time.) I felt like an arrow shot from a bow.  I was amazed at how fast we were speeding past things. I was sitting right in front of a very loud engine. I was thrown around when we went into a turn. I kept hearing a little voice saying, “Are you scared yet, Mama? Are you scared yet?”

My answer was, “I’m worried.”

So there- it was thrilling. All my senses were on alert and I loved it.

I wondered… at the end… if somehow I could have asked for the driver to switch seats with me, how afraid would he have been? Change of seats,change of underwear? Now that’s fear based on knowledge.

Martis 2seater 114
After the ride
Martis 2seater 107
Ready to roll

Power Surge in Indy Grand Prix; Dixon and Castroneves Tired Out

At last, we had a race that wasn’t a fuel saving race. It was a tire saving race. Will Power won after using up his first set of rubber earlier than he anticipated, then adjusted his pace to make the tires last last an entire stint. Helio Castroneves tried saving his primary set until the end of the race, but could not keep with those on reds and lost three spots at the end. Scott Dixon put on a late charge, cutting Power’s lead in half before his tires were used up. he most likely didn’t have anything for Power in any case.

While the leader, whether it was Power or Castroneves, jumped into large leads, the action behind them was furious. Graham Rahal moved up from starting twentieth to a sixth place finish. Improving fourteen spots without the benefit of a caution is a tremendous drive. Spencer Pigot seemed to pass everyone in the field except the leaders. His ninth place finish was a season high. He had the same type of run going at St. Pete until his brakes exploded. Alexander Rossi passed several cars at the start. He had great runs early in a stint, but faded at the end of each pit rotation.

It was another bad day for Sebastien Bourdais. The St. Pete winner suffered engine failure on the third lap. Bourdais has completed just three total laps in the last two races. He has gone from leading the points to seventh. Charlie Kimball appeared to suffer a similar fate a few laps later.

Marco Andretti”s tough season continues. After a drive through penalty for unavoidable contact with Tony Kanaan on lap one, he spent the race a lap down to the leader.  The good news for the  Andretti team is all four cars were running at the finish, including a third for Ryan Hunter-Reay. Rossi finished eight and Takuma Sato twelfth.

Overall, I thought it was one of  the better races so far this year in this year of not really great racing overall.  There was lots of passing and strategy to hold my interest.  Not sure we should panic yet, but we are getting close to 2008 levels of dull racing.

This race has only had two winners in its four years and has been won from the pole the last three years.

Notes:

The attendance looked to be around 35-40, 000, probably about what this event can draw consistently.  Last year the weather held the crowd down a lot. Unless it’s the 500, it is impossible to make the Speedway look full.

One improvement I’d like to see during qualifying for the Grand Prix:

During Round 1 Group 1 the top of the pylon showed time remaining in the session. for all groups after that, it showed the top speed of the leader. I would prefer to see time remaining for all groups, especially the Firestone Fast 6. The session leader’s speed can be shown at the end of the session. Time remaining wasn’t even displayed on the video boards.

The Points:

I think we are in for a great points battle this year. Pagenaud leads Dixon by just ten, and Scott has not won a race yet. Power won his first of the season Saturday. He rarely wins just one. Power is fifth, just 46 points behind. With all the points available for the next two weeks, the standings should look quite different on May 29.  I still think Power can win the title, but his teammate Josef Newgarden could be a dark horse.

There’s Another Race this Month:

Now begins my favorite fortnight of the year, the lead-up to the Indianapolis 500.I’m fortunate that i can go to the track each practice day. I love the daily ebb and flow of cars that are great one day and awful the next. Qualifying weekend si still exciting, even though I find this new format dreadful on many levels. I understand much of it is dictated by economics, but surely there  has to be a better way to do this.

This Honda’s time to shine. Last year they had the superior speedway package and I expect them to again. I know Ganassi drivers can’t wait for practice to begin. We shall see.

I am planning two more posts this week, one on an Indycar newbie’s 2-seaqter ride, and I hope one on a former winner from the 30″s. Before you ask, it was not a race I saw. I will also have a qualifying preview Friday evening and a wrap up next Monday.  Have a great week. i hope to see you at the track.