Born Racer: The Driver Is Not the Only Hero

Born Racer is a movie about heroes. Of course there is the driver, Scott Dixon, who knows the risks in his profession. But there is also his family, wife Emma and daughters Poppy and Tilly, who show outward strength while inside they are a bundle of nerves. The crew needs to get the car in perfect running condition and manage the race to achieve the best result possible. Sometimes things happen beyond their control, as in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Race Day 2017 begins at 5 am in two places. The garages at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway open and Ken Szymanski, the tire man for Scott Dixon’s car, begins checking tire pressures as he ponders what the next twelve hours will bring. In the Dixon motor home, Emma Davies-Dixon prepares breakfast for Scott, who is already focused on the day ahead. He sits quietly watching prerace coverage on a local television station. She sits with him, but doesn’t speak.

Activity at the track continues at an ever quickening pace as race time approaches. After the Ganassi team meets, Dixon and his family walk hand in hand to the grid. As Scott dons his helmet, Emma shares her thoughts about drivers who didn’t come back and the families they left behind.

” I don’t want it to be my turn,” she thinks as the race is about to start. She can only wait anxiously for three hours to know.

Shortly after the first pit stop, Dixon collided with Jay Howard in a horrific crash which sent his car flying into the inside catch fence and wall, destroying his car. Anxious moments are reflected on Emma’s face and the faces of the crew. Dixon gets out of the car on his own. there are more tense moments as Emma waits for him to come out of the infield hospital. somehow, Dixon has a broken ankle, but no other injuries.

One of the most riveting moments of the film is a look at the team on Dixon’s pit stand staring in stunned silence in the seconds just after the accident. The camera captures the dread and concern they feel watching the replay on the video board.

Later we see Dixon return to the motor home at the track being happily met by his daughters and Emma. She talks about how the car saved Scott’s life with relief and still some terror in her voice.

The season and the championship pursuit moves on. Kate Gundlach, a new assistant engineer with the team, talks about seeking perfection in her job to give Dixon the best car possible. Gundlach grew up in a racing family. She is passionate about the sport and her role. Winning the pole and having a chance to win the 500 was exciting, but the chance to win a championship really motivates her.

With just a single win at Road America and some frustrations at other races, there is still an outside shot at the title in the final race at Sonoma. The Penske team has a big advantage with their aero package and Josef Nnewgarden cruises to the title.

Emma and Scott stand together in pit lane. She tells him, “I’m really excited about next year.” As it turns out, that was a prescient statement.

The movie is a tribute to the best current driver in Indycar, who has already established his place among the all time greats of the sport.It also honors his family and team. We get an intimate behind the scenes look at his family and the crew. We see their single focus on one goal, the support they provide each other, and their resiliency when difficulties arise.

Some of my favorite scenes:

Dixon relaxing at home in the pool with his daughters on a rare day off.

Kate Gundlach preparing the steering wheeling with total focus, care, and love,

Emma’s tension while waiting to hear that Scott is okay after the wreck.

Ken Szymanski comparing Scott to Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna, whom he also worked with. He says that three have that something extra which motivates him to work harder.

The home movies of Dixon’s karting days when he was a kid.

Ron Dixon, Scott’s father, talking of all the money he put into Scott’s racing. He worked extra hours and took out loans just to keep Scott’s career going. “It was all worth it,” he says.

Born Racer is available through Amazon. It can also be downloaded for viewing from iTunes.

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2018- Passing Grade for New Aero; Close Points Battle; Talented Rookies

St.Pete set the tone. The racing was going to be better with the new kit. It was going to be a competitive season. A rookie star emerged and would captivate fans. 2018 was all that. That rookie, Robert Wickens, unfortunately didn’t get to complete the year.  Younger stars made a bold statement that they arrived, but the established stars rose to the top at the end, It was one of the most enjoyable seasons. I’ve seen.

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Robert Wickens at Mid Ohio. He finished second in what would be his last complete race of the year.

The Meteor

Robert Wickens stole the pole at the opening race in St. Pete and dominated the race until a lap 108 collision with Alexander Rossi knocked him out of the race. Indycar fans suddenly had a new star to root for. Wickens followed up with a second place finish  at Phoenix after leading the late stages of the race. Five consecutive top tens, including three top fives followed. Then everything came to a horrendous halt in the accident at Pocono. Whether Wickens gets back into a car again is still undetermined. He may miss the entire 2019 season. Despite missing the final three races, Wickens still finished tied for tenth in points and won Rookie of the Year. One of the highlights of last Sunday’s Sonoma finale was seeing a video of Wickens talking to the fans.

The New Aero Package

Two goals of the new aero package were to improve the racing and put the car back in the hands of the drivers. It definitely accomplished the second aim. There was better racing for the most part. Ovals definitely need some more work. Street courses showed the most improvement and road courses had more passing than last year. There is still an aero wash that needs to be tweaked. It’s fun seeing the cars slide through the corners.

A Tight Title Fight

Six different drivers swapped the lead eight times through the Texas race. Scott Dixon took the points lead with his win at Texas and led the rest of the way. His lead ballooned to 62 after Toronto but shrunk to 26 after Gateway. Alexander Rossi was third after Toronto, 70 points behind, but won two in a row at Mid Ohio and Pocono to cut into the lead. Rossi’s last chance to catch Dixon ended in the second turn at Sonoma when he clipped Marco Andretti, cutting a tire and damaging his front wing.

While Dixon’s 57 point final margin seems large, it was not an easy title to win. Dixon, Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power won three races each, and Ryan Hunter-Reay won twice. This concentration of big points days among a few drivers kept things close.

Dixon’s fifth title puts him into rarefied air. Only A. J. Foyt with seven championships has more than Dixon.

It was a strange route to the championship. Dixon did not win a pole and didn’t lead a lap until the first race in Detroit in June. He had the fewest bonus points of the four main contenders. Dixon dodged two bullets late in the season. He narrowly missed the spinning tub of Wickens’ car at Pocono. At the start of the Portland race, Dixon was involved in a scramble with four other cars, but he suffered no damage and fought back to a fifth place finish.

New teams

Carlin and Harding Racing joined the series full time. Meyer Shank Racing and Juncos Racing had part time entries. All four new teams will return next year with expanded programs. The biggest change for 2019 will be Harding, now Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Carlin is planning on adding a third car. Meyer Shank hopes to participate in ten races next season. Juncos bought a second car but is unsure if it will race during he season.

I will talk about the Harding Steinbrenner team in a post next week.

Rookies Impress

In addition to Wickens, Zach Veach had a string of four consecutive top tens at Toronto, Mid Ohio, Pocono, and Gateway. Veach had run well at times in other races but was plagued by mistakes. He was instrumental in setting up the Andretti cars in testing.

At Sonoma, Indy lights champion Patricio O’Ward got his first Indycar ride with Harding Racing. He got people’s attention with the third quickest lap in Friday’s second practice. He backed that up by qualifying fifth and finishing ninth in the race. O’Ward and Colton Herta will be full time next year for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

Final Thoughts

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Alexander Rossi at St. Pete. He showed amazing ability to pass anywhere and also had some controversial moments.

Rossi put some spice into several races this year with his charges from the rear. He started 32nd at Indianapolis and finished fourth. At Phoenix he went to the back because of a penalty and came back for a third place finish. At Sonoma he used a timely caution to fight back to seventh and keep second place in the final standings.

Rossi also created some controversy with some moves where contact was involved. the most notorious was was his collision with Wickens at St. Pete. I liked the way he didn’t apologize and just went on driving. Rossi has an old school attitude I really enjoy.

I admire Mike Harding for fielding a team all season on a limited budget. Next year the team should be stronger with added resources.

Thanks to Verizon for their series sponsorship the last five years. I appreciate that unlike other series sponsors, they completed their entire contract length.

Finally, I will continue to send good healing thoughts to Robert Wickens. I hope to see him race again.

 

 

Quick Thoughts- Sonoma Grand Prix and Championship

 

The championship ended before the first lap was over.

Sounded like NBC fumbled the coverage. I hope this isn’t an indication of how next year will be.

Scott Dixon definitely has a place among racing’s legends. Only A. J. Foyt had more championships.

Patricio O’ Ward continued his amazing weekend with a top 10 finish.

Alexander Rossi can pass almost anyone on any track. He might won the title next year.

The race reflected the youth ve. veterans theme of the entire year.Look for my full race recap later this week on Wildfire Sports. I will also have a season review here on Friday.  Thanks for following along this  year.

Quick Thoughts on Sonoma Qualifying

Hunter- Reay may have won the pole but Pato O’Ward was the star of the show. What a great job in his first Indycar weekend.

A non title contender winning the pole helps Dixon and pretty much knocks Power and Newgarden out of contention.

This was Dixon’s best road course qualifying of the year and only his second Fast Six on a natural road course. He could win the championship without winning a pole.

Power regrets not running another lap.

Wind will be a significant factor in the race tomorrow.

 

 

 

Sonoma’s Final Finale

Indycar’s odd relationship with Sonoma comes to an end Sunday with the Verizon Indycar Series season finale. The 2019 schedule released two weeks ago does not have Sonoma on it. The final race next year will be at Weather Tech Raceway in Monterrey, on the other side of San Francisco.

Since 2015 Sonoma Raceway hosted the season finale and the track has done a great job presenting the new champion. The program has improved each year. The championship presentation is on the track’s front stretch with fans allowed to join the festivities.

Indycar first raced here in 1970 under USAC sanction. Dan Gurney won the 60 lap race. The series did not return to the track until 2005 as an IRL event. It has been on the schedule ever since.

I describe Sonoma as a great track for race cars, but not a great track for racing. The winner is usually determined by who wins the pole or whoever is in a position to take advantage of the pole winner’s misfortune. Attendance has not been great here, but there will be problems improving it at the new venue.

There has been some drama here, however. In 2006 Tony Kanaan held on to second place with a broken wing, taking points away from contenders chasing teammate Dario Franchitti, allowing Franchitti to gain valuable points on his way to the season title. In 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya came into the race with a sizable points lead and had the championship well in hand. A collision with teammate Will Power cost him enough positions to allow Scott Dixon to win the race and the Astor Cup.

I enjoy the track and the surrounding countryside.It’s a beautiful drive to Sonoma and Napa from the track viewing the hills and vineyards. I will miss breakfast at the Fremont Diner and having a drink at Ernie’s Tin Shed. I’m not sure that Weather Tech Raceway will see better racing, but the scenery should be at least as good.

On Wednesday look for my complete race and championship preview on Wildfire Sports.

Quick Thoughts- Portland Grand Prix

Scott Dixon must have been an alchemist in another life. He turned what looked to be a disastrous points day into gaining points on his closest rivals.

What can I say about the Dale Coyne with Vasser Sullivan racing team and Sebastien Bourdais? Took P1 in Saturday practice, crashed the next lap, pieced a car together to qualify fourth, then finish third in the race. That team will sleep well tonight. This is the best story of the weekend.

It was a tough ending to what had been a great weekend  for Zach Veach. His top ten streak ended. I still look for great things from him next season.

Another great day for Spencer Pigot. He’s another young driver coming into his own. His fourth place finish today and his second place at Iowa show his late season maturity.

The crowd today was the largest I’ve seen for an Indycar race outside of IMS. I hope attendance figures for the weekend are released. Each day was a crowd other tracks would have been thrilled to have on race day.

For a race where not much passing was anticipated, there was a lot of drama and plot twists. Takuma Sato’s two stop strategy paid off. The yellows fell at the right time for him, while others were caught out by them.

Overall, it was a good race.

I believe Robert Wickens has clinched  Rookie of the Year. It shows what a strong season he was having. Continued hope for recovery for him.

Whos Rossi’s Rival?

At the beginning of the season the talk was of a rivalry between Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden. After St. Pete, it was Rossi and Wickens. In mid season it Rossi and everybody. It turns out that the rivalry was Rossi and Scott Dixon. They are the only two realistically with a shot at the title.

The twenty nine point difference between Dixon and Rossi is a good argument to get rid of double points. I don’t think the series needs six drivers eligible to win the championship at the last race unless the points naturally fall that wa

Notes

There is a strong buzz that COTA will be the seventeenth race. The schedule should be announced Tuesday.

After two consecutive  races with huge crowds,  Sonoma will look emptier than usual.

Fernando Alonso will test an Andretti Autosport car at Barber this coming Wednesday.

Look for my full race recap on Wildfire Sports later tonight or tomorrow morning.

 

Bommarito 500- The Race with Many Faces

Another successful event at Gateway Motorsports Park ended with a race that had something for everyone. Will Power grabbed his third win of the season, closing some ground on points leader Scott Dixon. There were a couple of passes for the lead, pit strategy, and fuel saving. A driver charged from deep in the pack to earn a top five. The surprise was that it wasn’t Alexander Rossi or Sebastien Bourdais.  As is typical of night races, the complexion changed as the track cooled.

Fortunately, setting the field by points did not affect the results. That is always a concern when the starting grid is set with no regard to speeds on a particular weekend.  It was evident that Power had tje best car from the green flag when he jumped into second place behind Dixon as Rossi had an unusually bad start. Rossi at one point fell all the way back to eighth.

Drive of the Race

While positions remained fixed at the front, Zach Veach charged to tenth from sixteenth. He would remain in the top ten the rest of the evening and lead his first career laps before finishing fifth. Veach has four consecutive top ten finishes. Saturday was his second top five this year. Veach got credit for helping Andretti Autosport set up their cars for Pocono from Rossi in Victory Lane. He should be even stronger next year.

Caution Sets Up Fuel Run

The second caution on lap 173 for Ryan Hunter-Reay’s stalled car caused everyone to re-figure pit stops. The race went back to green with a distance remaining that was a bit too long to make the end on a full tank. Rossi was one of only three cars to not make a fourth stop. He has becoming a fuel saving master on the same level as Dixon and Power. He salvaged second as Dixon was indecisive on whether to save or go wide open. meanwhile, power had stopped with 17 laps left and go full speed.

Great Save

Several cars, including Power, tried to pass on the outside going into turn 1 and ended up getting very close to the wall. Rossi slid in turn 2 and appeared to be heading straight for the wall before getting the car under control. It must have made some dirt car drivers jealous. He lost the race by 1.3 seconds. The margin would have been closer if not for that adventure.

Gateway Hits Another Home Run

Gateway Motorsports park and the Bommarito Group put on a much improved event. They took feedback from 2017 and put more than 1 million dollars into making the fan experience better. There were many more food vendors, including several food trucks with quite a variety of offerings. The widened drive and paved parking made leaving smoother. My group was on the highway in about twelve minutes.

A couple things they might consider for next year- many workers still did not know where to redeem paddock vouchers for wristbands nor which seats were general admission. The track also could establish a number to text if a fan has an issue. There were people smoking in the grandstands in spite of signs prohibiting it.

Overall, this group knows how to promote and put on a race.

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Sebastien Bourdais sits on track after hitting the wall on lap 1.

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The first two rows line up on the backstretch for the start.