Jim’s Back Home Again

This is one of four blogs I dreaded needing to write.  Jim Nabors, the iconic, legendary singer of “Indiana” at the Indianapolis 500, died today at 87.  He had been in ill health for quite some time and had not been back to the Speedway for a few years.

Like hearing Tom Carnegie on the PA,, Nabors’ singing proclaimed, ” Race time is near.” When he finished, the command to start engines was the next order of business. The pre race ceremonies, starting with “Taps” and ending with the command, still gives me goose bumps.

Nabors first sang at the 500 in 1972 when Tony Hulman asked him if he wanted to sing 30 minutes before the race began. He assumed he would be singing the National Anthem, but when he discovered it was (Back Home Again in) “Indiana”, he wrote the words on his hands.  A couple years later, he became the annual singer for that revered part of the pre race ceremony.

Jim last sung at the 2014 race. An idea was floated to have him return for the 100th running, but he was too ill to travel.

So another Speedway legend has left us.  I was fortunate to be at the race for each of his performances. No matter who has sung at the race the last few years, and Jim Cornelison was excellent last year, I still hear Jim Nabors’ voice singing.  Rest in Peace, Jim.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

Watkins Glen- The Semi Final

Hard to believe there are just two races left in the Indycar season.  This weekend’s race at Watkins Glen will tell us what might happen in two weeks at Sonoma. It’s great that IndyCar can race at another historic track this late in the season and that it has meaning in the title pursuit.

The return to Watkins Glen last year as an emergency replacement for the failed Boston Grand Prix was a hit with the fans.  The picturesque setting rivals Road America in natural beauty. The track is fast and provides great viewing spots. Unlike last year, when Simon Pagenaud pretty much had the championship in hand, this year will set the stage for a possible title showdown at Sonoma.

This should be another strong track for Chevy, although Honda will not be at the disadvantage they were at Gateway last week. I think we will have as  good a race here as we did at Road America. Penske cars could dominate qualifying with the Hondas of Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal rounding out the Fast Six.

If Scott Dixon wins this race, as he did last year, the series goes to Sonoma with a major points battle to decide the champion. If Josef Newgarden finishes ahead of Dixon, he will be in very good shape barring a significantly bad finish in California to win his first Indycar title. Just 43 points separate the top four in the standings. Will Power is 83 points behind in fifth. Realistically, this race is between Newgarden and Dixon assuming both finish well this weekend.

Other things to watch this weekend- Will A. J. Foyt racing continue the momentum they gained at Gateway? Will Ganassi park another car? Can Ryan Hunter-Reay get one more good result? Alexander Rossi might be in for a very good weekend. He has shown great growth in driving Indycars and is becoming a fan favorite off the track as well.

How will the swirling rumors surrounding Andretti Autosport affect them this weekend? News reported yesterday I’m leaving in the unconfirmed column for the moment.. I think the only solid part as of now is that Takuma Sato is going to Rahal-Letterman -Lanigan Racing as a teammate to Graham Rahal.

Who shows up in Victory Circle? Scott Dixon will win and  tighten up the points race. The series will go to Sonoma with the championship very much up in the air.

I will be at Watkins Glen this weekend beginning Thursday. I plan to drive the original course on the public roads and will share my experience next week. I’m also planning on going to Ithaca for dinner one night. Hope it’s not too much of an odyssey to get there.

Notes

The Mazda Road to Indy season concludes this weekend. Kyle Kaiser wins the Indy Lights title simply by qualifying. Oliver Askew should win the USF 2000 crown. He has a 13 point lead over Rinus Veekay. The Pro Mazda champion  will be either Victor Franzoni or Anthony Martin. Franzoni leads Martin by just 2 points.

Final attendance figures for Gateway have yet to be announced, but it appears the total will exceed 40, 000.  Gateway is my nomination to host the Indycar season finale in the future. More on this next week.

I’m hopeful Andretti Autosport puts an end to all the speculation this weekend and declares which engine they will use this weekend. Manufacture testing starts soon after the end of the season, and they need to get a handle on the new package quickly.

Jack Harvey will drive the SPM number 7 car this weekend and at Sonoma. The two time Indy lights runner-up is the second driver in the car since Mikhail Aleshin left the program before Pocono. This could be part two of an audition for this car for 2018.

Josef Newgarden has three wins and a second place in the last four races.

 

Gateway Preview- Racing by the River

Indycar returns to Gateway Motorsports Park after a 14 year absence.  CART ran here from 1997-1999 the day before the Indianapolis 500 then moved to a September date in 200. The IRL raced at Gateway from 2001-2003.  The 2017 date corresponds to the date when the IRl raced here.  This weekend’s weather is going to be unusually pleasant for St. Louis at this time of year. It’s the last oval race of the year and the newest event on the Indycar schedule.

St. Louis is a market I’ve always wondered why Indycar in any of its iterations never paid more attention to. I remember on Pole Day at Indy in the 60s and 70s a large group sitting in the upper paddock just north of the start/finish line. They displayed a banner, “St. Louis Auto Race Fans”. There were a lot of fans in this area. I hope there still are. Seeing that group was a Pole Day tradition for me.

Indications are this will be a triumphant return. The track has gone all out promoting the race, getting lots of community involvement, including the St. Louis Cardinals. Ed Carpenter threw out the first pitch before Tuesday night’s game, and tonight there is an Indycar FanFest at Ballpark Village, a gathering place across the street from Busch stadium.This past week has had several community activities leading up to the race. Word is ticket sales are going very well.

After an initial Indycar test, the track was completely repaved after drivers were concerned about the surface. Another test on the newly paved track brought rave reviews from the drivers. The drivers think passing will be possible. I hope that’s the case. The series doesn’t need another Phoenix-like parade this season.

Honda drivers are pretty much conceding Chevy has a huge advantage one the 1.25 mile oval. The track probably works more like a road course than an oval due to the odd configuration of turns 1 and 2.  The shape of the track should produce better racing than Phoenix.

Who will win? Helio Castroneves won the 2003 race  and Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are the only other active drivers who have raced at Gateway. Dixon does not expect to have a car capable of a top 3 finish. I’m looking for a penske sweep of the podium, with Will Power getting his second straight win in his march toward the title.  Josef Newgarden will retain his points lead, but there will be some shuffling behind him.  This  race will be decided by when the yellows fall and as a result, fuel saving could play a part in the final result.

Notes:

In a surprise announcement last evening,   Sebastien Bourdais will return to the number 18 for the last three races of the season starting this weekend at Gateway.  This is just 14 weeks after his horrific 118 g crash at Indy. It never ceases to amaze me how resilient Indycar drivers are after crashes like that.  There will not be a third car for Esteban Gutierrez . Just when I learned how to spell his last name.

Sebastien Saavedra likely needs a strong showing to make up for his crash at Pocono if he wants any consideration for a job at Schmidt next year.

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing did very well in their 3 races this year. Two top 10s and strong qualifying effort at Pococno is a fine debut for the team looking to go full time next year. They also completed every lap in the three races.

This will be another baseball/racing weekend. I’m going to the Cardinals-Padres game Thursday night and possibly the Cardinals-Rays game Sunday.

Team Silver, my Indy 500 group will be well represented at Gateway.