The New Ice Age- Dixon’s Win Sets Up a Title Run

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Scott Dixon goes through Canada Corner.

It was appropriate that the driver nicknamed the Iceman would win at a track carved by glaciers. In a season where nothing is as it should be, the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America did its part. Practice and qualifying told us that the race would be complete Penske parade. Penske cars were the top four in practice sessions and qualifying. Everyone expected the race to finish that way as well. The team did finish in consecutive spots, only the first Penske was in second place.

Scott Dixon passed Josef Newgarden on the restart following the first of two brief caution periods and led most of the race from there. Newgarden pulled within half a second at the finish. Helio Castroneves led early from the pole but Newgarden passed him shortly after the first pit stop. It seemed Castroneves’s car wasn’t quite the same after the tire change.

Most cars opted for a three stop strategy, which seemed to fit the new race distance of 55 laps. Many thought four stops might be needed. Alexander Rossi chose to go with four stops. It would have worked had there been one more full course yellow and head the caution periods been longer. The yellow was out for only three laps the entire race. Rossi’s tangle with Tony Kanaan didn’t help his chances either.

Dixon is the eighth different winner this season in ten races. His 41st career win puts him just one behind Michael Andretti in victories and sets Dixon on a nice path toward his fifth championship. It is a bit of a surprise that this is the frist win of the year for both Dixon and his Ganassi team.  He now has a 34 point lead over Simon Pagenaud with seven races left.

Notes:

Ed Jones continues to have a strong rookie season. He fought an ill handling car all weekend to finish seventh and stay in the top ten in points. I thought entering the season his Indy lights success was mainly due to driving for one of the top teams, but I was wrong. This kid can drive.

I was able to do more track exploration this year. The thing I was most aware of was the sounds at the track. During Friday afternoon  practice I stood on the straight leading into turn 5. The cars carry a lot speed into the turn, and the popping of the turbo as they downshift is exhilarating. It was fun to see where each driver shifted in relation to the 100 foot marker. Then I realized when the cars were not in view, they can be heard all around the track. I could hear them downshifting on the back of the course out of sight. I have not noticed this at other tracks.

Sitting on the hill above turn 5 I love listening to the echo of turbos popping as the cars go under the bridge. It sounds like gunshots. The sound of the engines as they race up the hill bounces of the trees.

I watched Saturday practice from the inside of Canada Corner. There are spots here that allow for very close viewing. I loved watching the brakes glow as they entered the turn. It was fun seeing how each driver dealt with the bump in the middle of the turn.

I was curious to see if this year’s attendance would even come close to last year’s massive race day crowd. It did.  The Friday and Saturday crowds seemed to be smaller, but race day attendance was very close to last year’s crowd.  There seemed to be fewer campers this year when I visited friends there Friday night.

In only two years road America has become my favorite road course. I could write thousands of words about what an amazing place it is, but I’ll stop now. I figure in 47 years I will have seen the entire track. If you haven’t been, make plans for next year now. You will never view road courses the same way again.

Halftime Ends; Indycar Returns This Weekend

Indycar begins the second half of its all too short season Sunday at Road America. The first half was a combination of strange and wonderful, which has led to several curiosities in the standings and results. The points leader hasn’t won a race, nor has one of the larger  teams. Penske drivers have won half the races and small teams have won most of the rest.  What will happen in part two?

We may see a return to more normal results with a couple more surprises thrown in. Scott Dixon continues to lead the points despite not having won a race yet. Helio Castroneves, second in points right now, has not won a race either. No one has more than two wins. I can’t remember the last time a season went this long with no one winning more than twice. No driver from Ganassi has won yet while Coyne, Schmidt Peterson, and Rahal all have won races.

Other surprises to me are the disappointing performance of Mikhail Aleshin and the fact that Alexander Rossi hasn’t won a race.  I thought at least one of them would have won a race this season.  While there is still time, there aren’t many tracks remaining where Honda  should do well.

The only constant is Team Penske.  Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud each have won once, while Will Power has two victories.  should succeed.  A win for Will Power at Road America, where he dominated last year, should give him a big boost toward his second title-except for one thing.

Scott Dixon usually begins a season slowly then comes on strong at the end. If he has another strong second half, he could extend his lead significantly. It is not usual for him to be leading the points at this juncture.  He can surely hear Power’s footsteps. It is hard to imagine Dixon not winning a race in any year. To maintain his lead, Dixon needs to avoid any more mishaps like he had at Indy and Texas, and take advantage of the tracks that favor the Honda package.

However it turns out, it is going to be a most intriguing eight races. I can’t wait to get started this weekend.

Notes:

A huge shoutout to Dale Coyne Racing crews who got cars together to test at Road America just three days after the carnage at Texas. Coyne has had five cars severely damaged in crashes this season.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has possibly three more shots at finding Victory Lane this year- Iowa, where he has won twice,  Pocono, and maybe Gateway. Can his engine hold together for an entire race? If it does, can he avoid getting caught up in someone else’s accident?

I hope Indycar has learned its lesson from Texas and has a couple more tests at Gateway before they race there. The trucks looked awfully fast there Saturday night.  The series cannot afford another bad oval show this year.

Le Mans was an incredible race this past weekend. It strengthened my resolve to go there next year.

Back later this week with a Road America preview.

 

Texas Recap- Tires, New Surface Make for a Difficult Night

It was the type of race that draws fans. It was the type of race that turns purists away. It was the type of race one should expect in this most strange,  unpredictable Indycar season. It was, in essence, a typical race at Texas Motor Speedway. Texas seems to bring out the best and the worst in all involved in the series.

Overall, this was the type of racing that Texas is known for.Despite a couple great finishes, the cars had been more strung out the last few years.  It was not pack racing in the sense of an entire field grouped together. There were small groups fighting for position; I saw three rows of two by two at times. In general this was the best race at Texas in a while, despite the messy situations.

The concerns going into the race were fulfilled. We had  tire issues, blistering and lack of fall off during a stint. Drivers  attempted to go three wide when it was not possible.  Passing was difficult because of the lack of a groove and the tires. All told, this led to the mayhem we saw on track.

The best thing Indycar can do for this race is reduce the downforce. Let cars get away from each other. There is a really good race hiding at this track. Let it come out.

Some notes and comments:

The teams of Rahal Letterman Lanigan and  Harding Racing are the only ones to escape the race with no damage. Some teams are planning a midweek test at Road America. Interesting to see who actually comes.

Dale Coyne Racing has had damage to five cars since Phoenix. Ed Jones sustained his first DNF of the year Saturday.

Will Power is the first driver this season to win at two different tracks. He is only the second driver with multiple victories this year. Scott Dixon extended his points lead despite a) not winning a race yet, and b) not finishing the race.

Kudos for Tony Kanaan for admitting his responsibility in the eight car crash which resulted in a red flag.  He ended up finishing second.

With only eight cars running at the checkered flag, several drivers had their best finishes of the year. Conor Daly, Gabby Chaves, and Marco Andretti all scored season bests.

Graham Rahal dodged spinning cars all night to finish fourth.

Great job by Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing to persevere and get their second top ten in as many races. The team will likely reappear at Pocono and is aiming to be a full time entry next year.

Tristan Vautier impressed early challenging for the lead in a very fast Coyne entry. If Esteban Gutierrez is in the car for the rest of the street/road course races, Vautier needs to drive the 18 on the remaining ovals.

Helio Castroneves appeared dazed after his crash. I’m wondering if he will go through concussion protocol.

I agree with the red flag decision here. It was in the middle of the race, and there was no way to avoid the debris. The cleanup would have burned a lot of laps. I just hope Indycar hasn’t started a trend of waving the red flag each time a multicar incident occurs. This was the third red flag in as many weeks. The one at the 500 and the flag Saturday were justified.

This is the first time I’ve ever been disappointed with Firestone’s on track product. Perhaps Indycar should have allowed another test day or two at Texas to ensure the tires were correct for the track. I hope everyone works together so this isn’t an issue at Gateway.

There has to be an alternative strategy for safety involving a tire issue. I do not agree with the competition yellow decision as a way to resolve the tire safety issue. Yes, tire blistering was a concern, and tires most likely did need to be changed more often. But, really, tire blisters were only a concern on a couple of cars. Could their setups be the cause? The entire field was penalized by the problems of a few. Pit stops could have been required by Indycar using a mandatory pit window similar to what Champ Car had for their races. If someone doesn’t stop, use the black flag. Going the way they did, and using a term employed by  that other North American based series, left a sour taste.

Indycar teams now get a welcome two week break before going to Road America. This may signal a return to normalcy, or it may not. The only predictable thing about this year is the unpredictability.

The season title is still up for grabs, and will probably again go down to the finale at Sonoma. Dixon leads Pagenaud by 13 points and Sato by 14. The top 7 are separated by just 59 points.

 

 

Texas Preview- Will the Pack be Back? Indycar news.

Saturday night Indycar concludes its marathon stretch with the Rainguard Water Sealers 600. The sponsor is ironic, since the track could have some type of rain guard last year. This was one of the best races last year with Graham Rahal nipping James Hinchcliffe on the last lap. Will this year’s race be similar?

In past races at Texas we have seen pack racing, processional races, and close finishes. Lately, the worst place to be is in the lead with a late restart coming. Cars behind the leader pit for fresh tires, while the leader can’t afford to give up track position. Track modifications may help the race, but there is a chance they could hurt the race as well.

The track has been repaved and the banking in turns 1 and 2 has been changed; tires did not fall off very quickly when Indycar tested there. The second lane seems to have disappeared as well. This could lead to a return of pack racing.

Teams have an 11 am practice , qualifying at 3:15, and a night practice at 6:45 today to figure out what will work best.  Perhaps a change in downforce will be necessary. Firestone has been working on developing a tire that won’t hurt the racing.

Pack racing like we saw at Chicagoland and Kentucky, while exciting, is very nerve wracking to watch. Indycar has been extremely lucky that Las Vegas was the only pack race that ended in tragedy. Given the severe crashes we’ve seen this year so far, I hope for the best.

Will Scott Dixon finally win his first race of the season tomorrow? Can Hinchcliffe claim the win he should have had last year? Might Ryan Hunter-Reay finally end his bad luck streak?  Will we have our second straight repeat winner? Will Rahal be strong again?

Honda cars should have the advantage,yet that advantage could provide some of the drama with the reliability issues they have had this year. Penske seems to be the only Chevy team that has found some speed.  Will Newgarden continue to be the best car from them?

I’m going to predict a Ganassi car wins their first race of the year tomorrow night. Look for Tony Kanaan to break his slump with a close victory.  I hope the race is safe.

Race Notes and News:

Gabby Chaves returns to the track in the #88 Harding Racing car. The team finished 9th at Indianapolis. If this race goes well, they will likely be at Pocono. They are aiming for a full time presence next season.

Tristan Vautier will be in the #18 this week subbing for Sebastien Bourdais. Esteban Gutierrez, who drove in Detroit, has no experience on ovals, and Indycar decided Texas is not the first oval he should attempt. Gutierrez may drive the rest of the road and street courses with other drivers running the ovals.

In the not a surprise category, Dallara will build the new aero pieces for the 2018 season.  Test dates announced for the new kit- July 25-26 oval configuration at IMS; August 1 road course kit at Mid-Ohio; August 28 Iowa; and September 26 Sebring.

 

Belle Isle Preview; Thoughts on The Victory Banquet- I Don’t Know You Any More

The Verizon Indycar season improbably reaches the halfway mark this weekend with The Chevrolet Grand Prix of Detroit.  It seems way too early in the year to be talking about the halfway point, but with a 17 race schedule, , Sunday is number 8. After next weekend’s race at Texas, the schedule slows down and the races are spread out more.  Texas will be the fifth straight weekend Indycar has been in action, plus the week of practice at IMS. Crews must be exhausted. Here are some thoughts on the Belle Isle event.

This is a very nice event. The volunteer staff is friendly and helpful, and GM throws a lot of support toward the race. The track is not one that produces great racing. Drama usually is dependent on how cautions fall and the weather. The last two years weather has had an effect on the outcome in at least one race of the weekend.  This year, there is the added drama of Honda unreliability and the lingering question of whether Helio Castroneves will break his three year victory drought. There have been six different winners in six races this season. How long will this continue? I think it goes for one more race, then Sunday will see the first repeat winner of the year.

Other things to look for- Will Ed Jones back up his third place finish in the 500? How will Esteban Gutierrez do in his role subbing for Sebastien Bourdais? What effect will Dixon’s foot injury have on his chances? Can A. J.  Foyt Racing finally have a successful race? Conor Daly has three finishes in the top six here.

This track should give Honda a slight edge as we witnessed in the street courses at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Chevy won the poles there, but Hondas were strong in the races.  I look for the same situation in race one and a Chevy pole and win in race two. Remember, this is a home game for Penske.

My picks- Tony Kanaan will win Saturday’s race.  Sunday Will Power wins from the pole.  The points race will continue to be topsy-turvy at least through Road America. As long as there so many different winners at the beginning of the season, no one will take command for a while.

Both races are on ABC at 3:30 pm Eastern time both days. Practice and qualifying will be live streamed.

The Victory Banquet

As much as I look forward to the Indianapolis 500 every year (already excited for the 102nd running), I also eagerly anticipate watching the Victory Banquet the day after the race.  Each driver gets to speak about his race and thank those who helped him compete.  It used to be a clean, straightforward program. Short clips of the driver in action preceded each driver’s appearance, there was a brief chat with the emcee, then the racer spoke.  I miss those days.

I have seen this program deteriorate for a few years. Last Monday’s edition was the worst abomination yet. From the dreadful jazz number that began the show to Dave Calabro’s constant attempts at hipness, I finally stopped watching until the time Takuma Sato was about to accept his reward.  He had a long speech, not necessarily unprecedented for winners, and Calabro tried to get him to wrap it up.  If someone wins the Indianapolis 500, he or she should get to talk as long as they want to. Next year, I will most likely record it and skip right to the winner’s presentation.  The late night talk show bit with two drivers interviewed at once takes away from each of them a chance to talk to the fans directly.  I’m not sure how the selections for the  chair talks are made, but it classifies the field into those more important to talk to, and those who are just supposed to just get their check and sit down.

I realize the old format was dated and changes occur over time, but this format needs to go.  It was tedious and over the top Hollywood wannabe.  I don’t even recognize this Monday after the race thing.  End Rant.

Enjoy the races this weekend. I will be back next week with thoughts on the action from Detroit, a Texas preview, and possibly another feature.

 

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