Indycar News and Thoughts – Change is in the Air

 

Sad news to begin with. Former Indy 500 Bill Puterbaugh (photo above), 81, died October 9. He ran in three 500s, finishing 7th and winning Rookie of the Year in 1975. His next best finish was 12th in his last 500 in 1977.  He ran mostly sprint cars and raced in 30 Indycar races with mixed results. Puterbaugh first came to the Speedway in 1968 and attempted to qualify seven straight years before getting in the race. His most famous qualifying run was the first one on Bump Day 1968, when he ran in near total darkness to complete a run which was too slow to make the field.

Schedule News- The schedule will be announced this morning. I  learned yesterday that Watkins Glen will not be on the schedule next year. The track wanted to move the race from Labor Day, but Indycar and track president Michael Printup couldn’t find a mutually agreeable time. Sounds like the Fontana situation all over again. I conced that labor Day weekend is not the ideal time for a race, but I really enjoyed going to the Glen the last two years. the area is beautiful, and the track is very fast and racy.  Odds are Portland will make its return to the schedule next Labor Day.

I put this solely on Indycar for not being flexible. There is a large enough gap in the schedule to fit Watkins Glen in. I can’t see saving a spot for Mexico. With no Mexican driver in the series currently, that race will not draw as well as some might think.

They didn’t ask me, but…If Portland is on the schedule, why not have it the weekend after Labor Day then everyone can drive down to Sonoma for the finale?

The one positive for the schedule as it looks like it will end up is that teams won’t go to Pocono, then St. Louis, then back to Watkins Glen.

IMSA Shocker- Wednesday Team Penske announced the completion of their DPi team competing in IMSA next year. Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron were previously set in one car and Helio Castroneves was confirmed for the other one. Castroneves’ teammate is Ricky Taylor, this year’s co-champion with his brother Jordan. There had been rumblings about this move, but I’m still surprised Ricky would leave the family team after the great season they just had. If it results in Taylor getting as Indy 500 ride next year, then it’s worth it.

The huge shock, however, was one of the extra drivers for the endurance races.  Simon Pagenaud was not a surprise, but the addition of Graham Rahal was. Rahal has done the best driving of his career the last two years in Indycar and I guess Penske finally took notice. Rahal drove for Michael Shank Racing in the Rolex24 this year.

Kanaan to Foyt- This is old news by now, but I think this is an interesting pairing. TK is the best driver Foyt has had for a while, and bringing engineer Eric Cowden with him might help the team. As lost as Foyt Racing was with the Chevy aerokit, I hope they can get a handle on the new universal kit quickly. No word on the driver of the 4 car yet, but both Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz are in the running for the seat.

Oval Qualifying Changes?  Some drivers have called for modifying the qualifying procedure for ovals.  Currently, order is determined by blind draw. It seemed that Will Power always went last, giving him the advantage of a fully rubbered in track. Early runners are dealing with the tire compounds of support series and sometimes the heat of a sun drenched track. Some suggestions have been qualifying in inverse order of final practice times, which I favor. Others have suggested a knockout format like the road/street courses use. I think knockout qualifying on an oval could be risky to equipment. I’m not sure anything will change, but we shall see when the rules come out for 2018.

I will post my comments on the schedule after it is announced tomorrow. I hope to put out another column or two before migrating to winter headquarters around the first of November.

 

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For the Love of Racing- The SCCA Runoffs at IMS

No pressure. No fighting for a ride for next season. No big money prizes. Just racing for fun. Just racing for the love of the sport.

 

The SCCA presented a great show last weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After practice and qualifying days, 24 races took place over 3 days. The runoffs are the SCCA’s national championship events. If you didn’t care for the type of car in one race, the next class might be more to your liking. There  were sports cars, formula cars,  and prototypes each with several classes. I heard that close to 1,000 cars were entered. At breakfast Sunday morning I overheard a representative from Hoosier Tires say they brought 6,700 tires for the weekend.

The program runs very efficiently. Each race is 19 laps or 40 minutes. While the last race’s winners are celebrating on the podium, cars are lining up for the next race. Basically, there was one race each hour, with a break for lunch.

There was good, hard racing throughout the fields. Only a few times did the cars get strung out. The formula Vee race was very entertaining with the lead switching  several times.

The only disappointment was not being able to find a program with a schedule of races or  any information about the classes of cars or the drivers. The SCCA website did not provide anything except the schedule.

This event will not be an IMS perennial as the SCCA rotates the runoffs. I hope it returns soon, though. It was a refreshing end to the racing season and allowed me one more day this year at the Greatest Place on Earth. Below are some more photos from the weekend. I’ll be back next week with some Indycar news.

 

 

October, 2011

Note: I published this story last year. After the events of yesterday, I thought I would present it again. It is a time to be kind to each other.

I was calling Las Vegas the fire sale race. It was the final race for the old cars, and every team wanted to race every car they had. Thirty four were entered, more cars than Indianapolis 500 entries most years.  Indycars hadn’t raced there in a while. Several drivers questioned the track’s safety.

The race was the season finale.  As usual, the championship would be decided. That alone should have been enough. But Randy Bernard, who had done many great things, decided this wasn’t enough. He declared a $1 million prize for Dan Wheldon, winner of the 500, if he won the race starting from last place.  I never liked the idea.

First, it diminished the championship battle. Second, it was a NASCAR type gimmick. I was very disappointed that Indycar thought it necessary.  Third, instead of the usual twenty or so cars, there were going to be thirty-four racing on a one and a half mile track.

Everyone expected a big pileup. Only 15 laps in, it happened.  An airborne car went into the fence. It looked really bad.  I couldn’t tell who it was at first, but I knew that driver was seriously injured. The broadcast team said it was Wheldon.

The times I’ve been at a track when a driver is killed, awareness is instant. There is an eerie silence that descends over the venue. Things move in slow motion. Oddly, sitting in my living room watching on television, I had that same sensation. I had been tweeting about the race with my friends. That activity halted for several minutes.

Inside sources began hinting on Twitter what I had feared. Nothing was official, but I knew that the source was reliable. We could do nothing but wait. The image of the helicopter ascending was all the confirmation I needed.  It looked just the end of the movie Senna, which I had just seen a few weeks before.

……………………………….

That Sunday also marked the beginning of a severe decline in my wife’s condition. She had been home from rehab two weeks. Things were looking better, but in the following week, her energy slowly drained and by the following Friday, she was back in the hospital. Friends came to be with her the next Sunday so I could go to Dan’s memorial downtown.She knew it was important to me. Knowing what was coming, it was hard to sit through. She died Wednesday of that week.

I never met Dan Wheldon. I have no photos of him. I never got his autograph. But I always admired his skill, his passion, and his joy for life.  Vicki had many of the same qualities as Dan.

At the five year mark, which at times feels like five minutes and other times like fifty years, I strive to live up to their standards, to embrace the joys of life, and let the little stuff go.  Ten days from now I will go to a quiet place and at 11:22 say a quiet prayer of thanks, and have the strength to get through another year.

 

 

Blue Cars, Red Flags, New Stars- Indycar Season Review

Intriguing. Weird. A look into the future.The 2017 Indycar season had all of that. The first half of the season was chaotic and amazing.  It looked like there would be a wide open fight for the championship. Yet the Penske armada was lurking, picking up poles and leading laps, but not winning a lot until later on. Then Josef Newgarden jumped into first place at Mid-Ohio and hung on to the end. His path became more difficult with his miscue leaving the pits at Watkins Glen, but winning the pole and finishing as runner-up in Sonoma clinched the crown for him.

The year began with seven different winners in the first seven races. Overall 10 drivers won races.  Penske drivers won 10 of the 17 races. Josef Newgarden won four times to lead the series. Graham Rahal was the only non-Penske driver to win more than once with his two wins at Detroit. Surprisingly, Scott Dixon won only once. Despite that he entered the final weekend at Sonoma only three points out of the lead.

Honda’s early engine failures changed the results of races through May. Honda teams used up their engine allotments early and saw their manufacturer lead evaporate since they couldn’t score points in the later races. Reliability improved the second half of the season, but Chevy/Penske was dominating by that time.

I don’t remember as many races in one year stopped by red flags for accidents. Phoenix, The 500, Detroit race 2, and Texas  had stoppages for cleanup. The flag at Detroit I thought was a bit questionable. Iowa was red flagged for rain although I thought it could have been stopped sooner.

What color should our car be this week? I know. Blue and white! In several races this season one third of the field was in blue/white liveries, many in the same pattern. This made it difficult to distinguish cars as they approached at the track and was challenging on television to tell them apart.

I thought this was a really fun year, and next year should be even better with the new look aerokits. The new bodywork looks sleek and fast. Josef Newgarden leads a growing field of rising stars including Alexander Rossi, Ed Jones, and Spencer Pigot. The newcomers will have strong competition from the established core of Scott Dixon, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud. I cannot wait for St. Pete.

Highlights:

Best wins: Sebastien Bourdais at St. Pete, Newgarden at Gateway, Rossi at Watkins Glen, Takuma Sato at Indianapolis.

Most improved driver: Alexander Rossi

Best races: Pocono, Road America, Indianapolis 500, Watkins Glen

Worst races: Texas, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Phoenix.

Best pass: Newgarden over Pagenaud at Gateway.  AyrtonSenna would have been proud of that pass.

Worst decision: Fernando Alonso as sole winner of 500 rookie of the Year. Ed Jones deserved a share of the award.

Notes:

Honda and Chevy will be testing the new aerokits soon. The last test for Indycar was Tuesday at Sebring. Team testing begins in January.

Carlin seems to be on the verge of having an Indycar team next year.

The 2018 schedule should be out soon, likely with a TBA date. The earthquake in Mexico may push that event back a year. Other than that, the circuit should be similar to the last two years. This consistency is a great thing for all concerned.

2017 drivers without 2018 commitments as of today: Conor Daly, Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz, James Hinchcliffe, Ed Jones, J. R. Hildebrand. Jones is likely to be back at Coyne and Hinchcliffe is  likely to be back at Schmidt.

I will be going to the SCCA Runoffs this weekend. This is essentially their national championship event. Past winners include Paul Newman and Willie T. Ribbs. I’ll report about it next week.

Thank you for reading this season.

Endings and Beginnings- Thoughts on Sonoma

The last race of the season creates a conundrum. There is a race to watch and people want to see a race winner. But there is a season title on the line which creates another layer of watching.  Point scenarios are discussed for a week. Very little attention is on the race itself.

Sonoma itself has unique issues a site for the finale. It’s a beautiful venue in a beautiful setting. Track management does a great job presenting the event as the finale. Yet the race is usually not the type of race a series needs for the one that decides its champion. Passing is at a premium. The cars get strung out. Pit strategy is the way to get by someone. An oval in prime time would make for a better ending to the season and add more drama to the title fight.

The 2017 edition of Sonoma was better than most races thanks to Simon Pagenaud’s four stop strategy. It was clear this was the plan from the start when his first pit stop came two laps before the pit window opened. He continued to build his gap after the other drivers pitted each time by staying on reds until his last stop. Pagenaud’s gap was big enough by the time he made his last stop to beat Josef Newgarden out of the pits. Newgarden tried to pass a couple times, but decided, or actually Tim Cindric did, that second place meant the title.

Newgarden is one of the youngest drivers to win the series championship. He took the lead at Mid Ohio and never looked back. The only hiccup the last two months was his problem leaving the pits at Watkins Glen.  The rest of his final stretch showed first or second place finishes. Newgarden is destined to add a couple more titles to his resume.

While we’re possibly seeing the beginning of a new Indycar star, we may have seen the last of another one full time. Indications are even stronger now that Helio Castroneves will not be a full time driver next year in Indycar. He will run the 500 and possibly the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but he will be driving for Penske in the IMSA sports car series. I’ve never been a fan of Castroneves, but the last two years he has done the best driving of his career . The paddock will seem empty without him.

The race was the final outing for the manufacturer aerokits. New bodywork for next season should make for better racing since most of the downforce will be on the underside. I will not miss the rear bumpers. I thought they made Indycars look too much like sportscars.

Scott Dixon fought hard for fourth in the race and finished third in the points. The bar Newgarden is shooting for as a career? Dixion has finished in the top 3 in points 11 of the 12 years he’s been in the series.  I hope everyone appreciates that we are watching a legend drive.

Thoughts

I thought the crowd was the biggest I’ve seen at Sonoma in the four years I’ve been there. It was definitely the best Saturday crowd I’ve seen.

Zachary Calaman de Melo did a good job during the weekend. His main job was to get laps and he accomplished that.

I watched Friday’s second practice from the turn 2 and 3 area. It is a great spot to see most of the track. Cars tended to have a bit a back end slide through 3.

Word came yesterday that Ganassi will be a two car team next year. This should not come as a surprise as signs have been there for awhile. I have a couple friends on the 8 and 83 crews. I hope they can land another spot soon.  Brendon Hartley is expected to drive the 10 car.  Nothing against Hartley, a great driver in sports cars, but I’d rather see the opening go to someone who has gone through the Road to Indy.

Will Carlin be full time in Indycar in 2018 with Max Chilton and possibly Charlie Kimball?

Conor Daly ended the season with a couple of top tens and led some laps at Sonoma. Is it enough to save his job? Many of his early season issues were team related.

Silly Season is looking to be very short. Most of the regular seats are filled. We are waiting to see what some possible new teams are planning. I think it’s possible there may be several teams who make select appearances during the year rather than go full time.  The car count may look stable at every race, but some teams will be different.

Thanks to all of you for reading my posts this year. I’ll be back next week with a season review and then I will be posting stories of races past throughout the off season.

 

Sonoma Preview: Cementing a Legend or First Step to a New One??

This is always the race preview I don’t enjoy writing because it’s the last one of the season. It seems this race always comes too soon. I’m positive it was only two weeks ago that I was standing on pit road at St. Petersburg with my friend Shay Hazen of Live Full Throttle when the engines came to life for the season’s first practice. Now we are at Sonoma for the finale.

Sonoma has never been a great race. The track is narrow and passing is minimal. This year’s event has some intrigue, however, due to the tight points battle. While the track puts on a great event,  this is not the best place to determine a season champion. An oval is better suited for ending the year, especially if Indycar insists on the unnecessary double points ending.

Indycar will tell you that six drivers have a chance at the Astor Cup. two of those drivers are only eligible because of the double points gimmick.  The two ahead of them are a longshot, as I’ll explain. This is really a two driver shootout between Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon. Newgarden leads Dixon by just 3 points. Dixon is going for his fifth title, while Newgarden looks to continue his quick rise to the top rank of Indycar drivers.

Let’s play along with Indycar for a moment and look at the six drivers and their chances. Alexander Rossi is 84 points behind Newgarden. His title chances depend on his repeating what he did at Watkins Glen, taking the maximum points and Newgarden finishing 21st. Only one of those events is likely. Will Power, 68 points in arrears, needs the grand slam and for Newgarden to finish 13th. Power has had issues at Sonoma. In 2014 he spun while leading in the hairpin, and in 2015 he collided with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, likely costing Montoya the title.

Defending champion Simon Pagenaud trails Newgarden by 34 points. If   Pagenaud runs the table for 104 points, Newgarden must finish fourth or worse. If Newgarden comes home third, they tie and Newgarden wins with 4 victories to 2 for Pagenaud. Helio Castroneves, like the others, needs to collect the most available points. If he does that,  a second place finish by Newgarden, even if he leads a lap, Castroneves wins the title.

For Newgarden and Dixon, the job is much easier. Whoever finishes ahead of the other is the series champion.  This is one of Dixon’s best tracks. He and Power have won the race three times, with Dixon winning most recently in 2015. The Chevy package will likely have an advantage this weekend, but Dixon just needs to finish ahead of one of them and as far up in the order as he can.

Usually this race comes down to who wins the pole. That single point can be crucial. Saturday’s qualifying will actually eliminate a couple of the drivers with a chance. As we saw in Watkins Glen, however, nothing is certain in Indycar racing. Pit errors may play a role in determining the outcome.

Then there are the spoilers. Rossi played that role at Watkins Glen, taking 11 points that Dixon could have had. Graham Rahal has had a great run the last half of the season, accumulating top 5s and top 10s. Will the extra RLL car for Zachary Claman de Melo be a factor in a point stealing sense? A 22 car field means last place pays16 points, while 21st, the size of most grids this year, is worth 18.

Who will it be? I’m still going with Scott Dixon to be the 2107 champion. He knows how to win championships coming from behind.  Simon Pagenaud will win his second consecutive GoPro Grand Prix, but not from the pole.

Notes

Zach Veach apparently has a 3 year deal with Andretti Autosport. An announcement  should be made this weekend.

Tristan Gommendy and Calmels will drive the 77 car for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports at next year’s 500. Gommendy rove for KV in CART in 2007.

It looks like Tony Kanaan will drive for A J Foyt next year in the 14. No word on who will be in the 4. I hope it’s still Conor Daly, but I’m not optimistic.

Late news has Brendon Hartley joining Chip Ganassi racing to replace Tony Kanaan. Look for a 2 car effort from Ganassi next year.

My season review and Sonoma post race will be out on September 29. I’m staying in California for a few days after the race. I will try to post Sunday night but it will be brief.

 

The Late Blooming Summer Flower- Rossi Has Arrived

There is always one flower in the garden that doesn’t bloom until nearly fall. You wait and wait, just knowing that when it blooms it will be amazing. This flower very much parallels the brief Indycar career of Alexander Rossi. before last year’s Indianapolis 500, no one gave him much thought. Following his win in the 100th running he had some very good runs the rest of the season. A likely podium at Pocono was lost when he was involved in a pit road accident. Coming into this year, Rossi was someone to watch. He would surely get at least one victory. The summer of waiting began.

A strong run at Long Beach was thwarted by an engine failure. Pit stop issues cost him positions at other races. Then a bud formed. Rossi began appearing on the podium. Finally,  on Sunday, the blossom opened. Rossi  has an average finish of 4.8 in his last 6 races. Beginning with Toronto, his worst finish is 6th. Sunday was his third podium in that span.

Rossi dominated a good race with lots of passing. His dominant win did not come without drama. A fuel hose problem on his first stop put him back in the field and cause him to need to stop out of sequence on lap 24. It was a long stop since the fuel hose had to be manually opened. He got help from a yellow three laps later and  was able to return to the front of the field as everyone else made their second stop. Rossi had enough of a gap to make his final stop and then blow past everyone else as they pitted. Fuel also played a bit of a role in his second career win again, but in a different way than it did in his first.

I expected the points battle to tighten, but not in such a dramatic way. Scottt Dixon finished second, gaining 28 points on Josef Newgarden, who had a problem on his last pit stop. While there was drama at the front of the field with Rossi’s fueling issues, points battle drama took a huge twist on the last stop. Josef Newgarden slid into the barrier leaving the pits and then was rammed by Sebastien Bourdais. The indcident reminded of Ryan Briscoe at Twin Ring Motegi who had a similar problem leaving the pits. Briscoe also was the points leader with just a couple races to go. He finished third in points.

Next season we could see two Americans, Newgarden and Rossi, fighting for the championship. Andretii Autosport seems to have finally figured something out and with everyone having the same aerokit next year, this team, with Rossi leading will be in the thick of the fight.

Notes:

The Indy Lights finale was one of the best races I have seen this year. The race was run in a heavy rainstorm, but the drivers raced and raced hard. The first five laps had close, intense battles, including a three wide run into turn 1 at the green flag. It was essentially a clean race.It would have been easy to just string out and run single file, yet they were going at it as if the weather were dry.  Hats off to these guys for a great show in difficult conditions. The race will be shown on NBCSN Wednesday evening at 6 pm. It is worth watching.

Congratulations to Mazda Road to Indy champions Oliver Askew, USF2000; Victor Franzoni, Pro Mazda; and Kyle Kaiser, Indy Lights.

Indy lights driver Zachary Claman De Melo will drive a second car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing at Sonoma. This could be an audition for a possible third car for the team in 2018.

Attendance at Watkins Glen was down significantly from last year, although there were more fans at the track Sunday than I expected with the weather.  Significantly fewer campsites were occupied.

I will return later in the week to begin discussing some championship scenarios. While there are many possibilities, it is still less complicated than nascar’s playoff format.