Paddock Report: Kansas Speedway
Even though I'm an old-school road racer, I've got to admit, it seemed pretty strange to have gotten this far into the '09 IndyCar season without an oval race. Soooo, even though the "cookie cutter" 1.5-mile speed bowls like Kansas are my least favorite of the left-turn only circuits, it WAS still kinda nice to see everyone running around in circles once again.
The biggest change on the ovals this year is that the IRL mandated a single wheelbase for all cars. This is primarily a cost-saving move. Wheelbase length affects both handling and aero, so by requiring teams to use one set of suspension pieces conforming to a set wheelbase length, they don't have to build multiple wishbones, steering arms, half shafts, etc., AND they also don't have to test all those different variations in the wind tunnel, shaker rig, etc.
Oh yeah, and with a tight, two-day schedule featuring a bare minimum of track time prior to qualifying, the Sunday morning warm-up has returned, both here and at Chicagoland later in the season.
Weather would be an issue all weekend long, with high, gusty winds and storms all around. On Saturday afternoon, your basic springtime line of T-storms came roaring through after IndyCar qualifying, with tornados touching down within a few miles of the track and forcing the postponement of the NASCAR Truck race until Monday morning.
In the "welcome addition" department, we had Sarah Fisher running for the first time this season. Sponsor Dollar General was much in evidence, and the team announced it would be running most - if not all - of the bigger-than-a-mile oval races on this year's schedule. Good news.
The weekend got underway with a practice session for rookies and drivers outside the top 10 in the points championship. And yeah, it was strange to see defending series champion Scott Dixon lumped in with this group. But a pair of disastrous (for him) races at St. Pete and Long Beach had Dixie languishing around 17th in the points standings.
After about 30 minutes, the track went green for an "All Skate" full-field practice - the only practice IndyCar teams would get prior to qualifying in this compact, two-day schedule.
Helio Castroneves brought out an early yellow when a sticking fuel buckeye led to a minor fire, from the resulting spray back on the exhaust. But the Penske guys were quickly able to get everything cleaned up and Helio was back on track within a few minutes. That was about it for incidents during the session.
When the checkers flew at the end of practice, the usual suspects were at the front: Dixon, Castroneves, Marco Andretti (all right, a bit of a surprise there), Briscoe and Danica Patrick. With Kanaan 6th and Mutoh 8th, it was apparent that AGR would be on the pace this weekend, and 9th for Sarah Fisher was very encouraging for her small team.
So sorta the "same old, same old." For practice, anyway. But qualifying would be a slightly different story.
Always an engineering-led team (and PROUD of it), Newman Haas Lanigan knew all too well that, when it came to IndyCar racing - as opposed to Champ Car competition - it was lacking a bit last year on the engineering side, especially on the bigger, 1.5-mile ovals. And that knowledge stung, so they went out and did something about it in the off-season, hiring Martin Pare from the Rahal Letterman team and (especially) Mitch Davis from the Ganassi squad.
There were inklings of NHL's oval improvement at Spring Training in Homestead, but some of that was masked by the attention given to the (brief) addition of Milka Duno to the team.
Following qualifying in Kansas, just how far NHL has advanced since the end of last year was apparent to everyone.
After a strong run by "rookie" teammate Robert Doornbos, NHL's Graham Rahal was the last of 22 qualifiers to make a run - and he promptly stole the pole out from under the nose of Long Beach race winner (and early-season points leader) Dario Franchitti. All in all, it's a far cry from the team's oval-track struggles of just a few short months ago.
Dario WOULD have started on the outside of the front row, but he put his left-front wheel below the white line separating the apron from the banking during his run and his time was disallowed as a result. Franchitti would start at the back, along with third-fastest Castroneves, who also got his knuckles wrapped by the "iron hand of justice" (a.k.a. Race Director Brian Barnhart) for the same offense.
That put - wait for it - "Bobby D" Doornbos into P2, for an all-Newman Haas Lanigan front row. Danica and Dixie were now Row 2, followed by Marco and Mario Moraes of KV Racing (another Champ Car team doing GOOD THINGS on a big oval). The top 10 qualifiers represented no fewer than six different teams.
Having "character-building" weekends were Ryan Hunter-Reay in the second Vision car (even an engine swap on Saturday failed to improve things, so obviously, there is some other drag/friction issue with the #21 car), and E.J. Viso, whose weekend started out badly and went steadily downhill from there. Not only were the HVM boys slow, they also had Viso's qualifying run DQ'd for a "technical infringement" found in tech. And so, we all headed to the nearest storm shelter for the night, while houses, witches and young girls named Dorothy (and her little dog, too) went flying past our hotel windows.
In addition to the IndyCar feature, there was an Indy Lights race, also featuring a 22-car field. Well, 22 cars UNLOADED at the start of the weekend; by the end of Sunday, a bunch of them had been reduced to "sliders," as this one was a bit of a crash-fest, or "festival of carbon fiber" as my homeboy "Press Dog" likes to say.
The first crash saw Jesse Mason get sideways in Turn 3/4 on Lap 3, and he then collected Richard Philippe.
Just a couple laps after we got back to green, Ali Jackson got sideways and hit the wall in Turn 4 for his second crash of the weekend (he'd also had a heavy crash in practice Saturday morning). Rodrigo Barbosa slowed to avoid the accident - and was run over by Sergey Mokshantsev. Sergey's car jumped into the air and landed upside down against the wall: a very scary-looking accident. Thankfully, Sergey walked away.
AGR's Sebastian Saavedra got by Wade Cunningham to take the early lead, as the cars up front were wiggling around quite a bit in the wind. Long Beach race winner JR Hildebrand started out in 3rd, but soon faded with a deflating rear tire, leading to an eventual (and race-killing) green-flag pit stop.
Around Lap 33, Pablo Donoso touched James Hinchliffe, and he, too, wound up in the wall, nearly collecting teammate Sean Guthrie. All in all, the Guthrie-Meyer team would trash a total of four cars this weekend. Ouch.
Next, Gustavo Yacaman spun in Turn 4, but he was able to pretty much avoid hitting anything, making only light contact with his rear wing. The final crash of the day happened with 10 laps to go, as Dillon Battistini spun in front of Pippa Mann, collecting her and sending himself to the hospital for a precautionary overnight stay.
After that, and with the pace car being the day's lap leader, race officials mercifully let the laps run out under yellow. I'm sure the pre-race drivers' meeting at Indy next week will be VERY interesting...
Oh yeah, Saavedra kept his nose clean for his first Lights win and the first win of the season for AGR.
Fortunately, the IndyCar race was MUCH cleaner, 'tho there were still a few ruffled feathers at the end.
The first "feather ruffling" came on Lap 15, when Mutoh unexpectedly changed lanes in front of Vitor Meira exiting Turn 4. Meira checked up, and was promptly given a hard goose up the gearbox by a rapidly closing Castroneves.
BTW, have you noticed a trend here? I think every open-wheel incident of the weekend took place in Turns 3-4.
Anyway, the usual superior Penske pitwork ensured that Helio was able to pit for a new nose and other repairs without going off the lead lap, while Meira's day was done due to rear suspension damage.
At the front, Rahal got a good jump to lead early, but Dixon was stalking, and when Graham's car started to go off slightly as his tires wore (and/or the track "rubbered-in"), Dixon was able to take the lead on Lap 8, and would rarely be out of the lead the rest of the day. Dixie put this one in a choke-hold early, and wasn't about to let go.
With everyone calculating the approaching storms on radar against the lap count - and perhaps mindful of all the carnage in the Lights event - the race stayed green until Lap 96, when Rafa Matos brushed the wall in Turn 4 after getting loose and then saving it while trying to go around Moraes. He made it to pit lane, but was finished for the day.
Of the rookie contingent, Doornbos was most impressive all weekend, finishing 12th despite being sent to the rear of the field for running over an air hose on his second stop.
The final caution of the race came out when Franchitti, on one of his patented in-lap flyers, came up (too) fast on the also-pitting Rahal, just as both neared pit-in. Rather than run up the back of Rahal, Franchitti chose to turn hard right and, as soon as his right front tire left the apron and touched the banking, dreaded "wall suck" took over, and in the blink of an eye Dario was up the hill and into the Turn 4 fence.
After the cleanup, the final segment of the race saw Dixon lead, with Helio fairly close but unable to truly mount a charge. Kinda anti-climactic, to be honest, probably due in equal measure to a green, rain-washed track, the wind, and the general nature of the tire/aero combination spec'd by the rules these days.
It general, it was just tough to run up high; there never really was a second groove. That being said, Rahal WAS able to make a couple of passes up high in the late laps on his way to 7th place at the checkered flag. The exception to prove the rule, I guess.
In addition to Ganassi (Dixon) and Penske (Castroneves), AGR had a good day, with Kanaan finishing 3rd and all four cars in the top eight, their best overall day for the team in quite some time.
So, now we head to Indy with TK at the top of a very tight points battle, followed by Briscoe and Franchitti. It also looks like we could have as many as 38-40 legitimate car/driver combinations, and genuine bumping for a second consecutive season.
It's time for the Month of May! Look for your next update following the first qualifying weekend.