HPD Blog

Monday, June 22, 2009

Racing Times: Iowa

SOME of us had a weekend off after Texas, but others went testing: some at Chicagoland, others at Richmond, a bunch more at Watkins Glen and even some at Iowa, which, conveniently enough, was the next stop as the IndyCar Series began its annual June-July "death march" of seven races in eight weeks.

The lone Iowa tester: Franchitti. Hmmmmm.

On the driver front, the biggest change since Texas was Vision Racing shutting down its program for the #21 car, and driver Ryan Hunter-Reay moving over to A.J. Foyt Racing. Not sure I'd consider that a "promotion," given the struggles of the Foyt team this year, but Hunter-Reay definitely needed a change of scenery, as both driver and team had lost faith in each other at Vision.

Jaques Lazier was back aboard the Team 3G car, and will drive it at Richmond, as well. Meanwhile, former Indy Lights driver Richard Antinucci was announced as the driver for the team at Watkins Glen. As for Toronto, Edmonton and onward, we'll just have to wait and see, but I don't anticipate seeing original driver Stanton Barrett back in the car any time soon.

Conquest also was absent, dropping us to 20 cars at Iowa. But in the brighter news department, you can expect to see Will Power back in a third Penske car for 5 to 6 more races. Since "The Captain" uses his Grand-Am team members to prep and crew this car, likely events for Power include Toronto, Edmonton, Kentucky, Infineon and perhaps even Motegi and Homestead.

For some guys, getting there was just half the fun... not. This was a two-day event, starting on Saturday morning. But storms that moved through the upper Midwest on Friday delayed several flights into Des Moines and, in the case of Tony Kanaan, added just one more chapter to the annus horribilis that is his 2009 season.

On an airline flight from Miami, TK was first delayed, then diverted to Chicago. Eventually, AGR had to send a private plane to fetch him from Chicago. And yes, he's still limping and sore from Indy.

Dramas at AGR continued as Marco Andretti crashed hard in Turn 2 in the first session, the result of an apparent rear-wing failure. For those of you keeping score, that's three mechanical failures that have rooted cars in the last four races. Marco was fine, but would miss the rest of Saturday and start the race in his backup car.

A bit later, Danica Patrick made contact with one of her crew members on Pit Lane. Leonard Gauci, the left-rear tire changer, was hit as Danica was pulling into her pit stall. Gauci was checked over and released from the trackside care center, but would stay behind the wall for the race.

The rest of the session was incident-free, although many drivers commented that the bump between Turns 1 and 2 (and over the tunnel leading into the infield) was more pronounced this year. The other change visible from Pit Lane: Iowa is no longer a "mini-superspeedway," where you try to drive flat-out around the bottom of the track.

Now, as the asphalt race surface ages and smoothes out, Iowa is much more like Richmond, where you actually apex the corners: start high on the front and back stretches, cut down to apex between Turns 1-2 and 3-4, and then slide (yes-slide!) back out towards the outside wall entering the next straight. Fun. At least, to watch....

In addition to pre-race tester Franchitti, this seemed to really help the HVM team, which has yet to finish a race this year. Viso ran 11th in the opening practice, and looked far more competitive than he has at any other oval this year.

It was dry all day on Saturday, but right at the conclusion of Indy Lights qualifying a couple of weepers-water seeping up through the track surface from underground-appeared on the back stretch and into Turns 3-4. A couple of IndyCar guys made qualifying runs, but after Scott Dixon tossed up a visible spray of water on his attempt, Brian Barnhart & Co. decided to stop the madness and grid the field according to team entrant points.

BTW-team ENTRANT points????? - What's that all about? Well, it's in the rule book (I looked it up just to make sure!), but that doesn't mean it's a rule that makes any sense. How 'bout in the future we grid them according to practice times (assuming we've run two full sessions) OR by driver points?

Anyway, using entrant points gave fourth-in-the-drivers'-championship Helio the pole (when you're hot, you're hot!), due to the points Will Power scored in the #3 car at St. Pete. Hunter-Reay also moved back several positions, as the #14 car didn't have near the points he had scored in the #21 Vision entry. That would come back to bite RHR on Sunday...

It took a couple of hours, but the weepers got sucked dry and a really nice crowd turned out for the Indy Lights race, maybe as many as 10,000 people, despite a sprint-car show going on the same night just 20 miles away at the famed Knoxville Raceway.

In what turned out to be an accurate prelude to Sunday, the crash-heavy, but exciting Lights race saw a bit of a storybook finish, as Ana Beatriz won for the first time this year after Wade Cunningham-who led most of the night-was badly balked by a slower car in the closing laps and "Bia" was quick to seize the opportunity.

The race ended under yellow as Pippa Mann, who'd come close to crashing several times while being lapped, finally successfully completed the mission, sliding upside-down on the backstretch after touching wheels with the lead-lap car of James Davison.

As for "Bia," the win couldn't have come at a better time, as she has struggled with funding issues after a couple of early-season crashes, and actually missed the previous race at Milwaukee as a direct result. She also started the weekend with a misfiring engine that lost her most of the first practice before it was changed.

Race Day

On to Race Day, which dawned with rain still falling in a drizzle... Ruh-row...

But the rain tailed off by about 9 a.m. or so, and-unlike a day earlier-the track dried quickly and without a repeat of the weepers. So, we went green as scheduled at 12:30...

...and once again, yellow almost immediately thereafter, as a couple of guys - Viso and Doornbos - either forgot how little grip there would be on a green track with cold tires or just started out with cars too loose for school. In any event, their separate, but synchronized, spins in Turn 4 took both of them out of the race: Viso after his outside-lane car spun and backed into the fence; Bobby D as his rotating car was clipped by Hunter-Reay. One lap done, and three cars out.

Meanwhile, Tomas Scheckter was once again living up to his reputation, passing no fewer than six cars on the opening lap-going from 16th to 10th on the high side without losing it on the green track. Impressive.

And that set the tone for what certainly was an entertaining race:passing for the lead, side-by-side action, full grandstands. What more could you want? (well, a few more cars, but that's about it). Interesting that the two best races so far this year-Milwaukee and Iowa-have been on short ovals.

And the full grandstands were cool, too. The track announced 42,000 paid and I believe it. I wasn't a fan of this event-or this market (not exactly a Honda hotbed)-before we started coming here in 2007. But they've earned the right to stay on the schedule. Good for them.

For the third race in a row, Ryan Briscoe dominated the middle stages, only to finish second. Franchitti was simply better than him on cold tires, and much more aggressive on his pit entry and first lap out on cold tires. That was the difference that gave Dario his record-extending 20th open-wheel win for Honda, now well clear of Alex Zanardi's second-best total of 15.

Hideki Mutoh finished third, and obviously likes this place, as he ran second here last year. Unlike Scheckter and Dan Wheldon, who both used the high line to make up a lot of places, Mutoh would go high, low, wherever there was an opening. He was especially strong on restarts and VERY entertaining to watch. He also picked a very good weekend to run well, with Mr. Ezawa from Honda Motorsports (Japan) on hand.

Scheckter, Wheldon and Mutoh were the stars of the day with the knowledgeable crowd, who noticed and cheered many of their better moves. Unfortunately, Scheckter's car went off as the track got "grippier" later in the race, and eventually finished a lap down in sixth. But it was still a great run, best of the year for DRR. After a rough start to his year, Mike Conway also had a (much needed) undramatic run to finish eighth. Wheldon was the last car on the lead lap for a well-earned fourth.

For Franchitti, it was odd not having his father here-and on Father's Day, no less. George decided to take the weekend off after going with Dario to watch younger brother Marino at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I think I can count on one hand the number of IndyCar and CART races George has missed over the years.

Helio Castroneves clipped Scott Dixon while battling for the lead on Lap 18. Castroneves tried to get under Scott, but pushed up into him instead. The contact tore the end fence off Castroneves's front wing and flattened Dixon's left rear tire. Both drivers were able to repair the damage, and stay on the lead lap, but both never really contended after that.

Tony Kanaan's year-from-hell continued in Iowa. TK crashed at Turn 2 for the third year in a row shortly after a Lap 106 pit stop. Kanaan stated he just lost the car being too aggressive on cold tires, and that the bump over the tunnel had nothing to do with his accident.

All-in-all, a fun event for the fans-even if some teams had a fair bit of repair work to do afterward.

Some final notes:
  • Return of the "SOFA KING". Kosuke Matsuura (remember his famous quote from St. Pete in 2006?) was back in the IndyCar paddock this weekend, talking to teams about running Motegi. You might just see him in a second Luczo Dragon car...
  • Also hanging out in Iowa was the latest Dancing with the Stars champion, gymnast Shawn Johnson. Johnson, who won a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, is from West Des Moines. Since this was an ABC race, and Dancing with the Stars is an ABC show...
  • And, of course, Rusty Wallace was in the house. The Iowa Speedway front man came into town following Saturday night's NASCAR race at The Milwaukee Mile
  • This was the final year of the current Iowa contract, but expect the track to be back for at least two more years. The IRL is predicting an 18-race schedule for 2010, evenly split with nine each road races and ovals. That means one oval (Kansas, Milwaukee or Kentucky) will go away, and two road races (most likely one in Brazil and Barber Park in Alabama) will be added
  • We've said it before and we'll say it again-E.J., change the number of your car! "13" just isn't working for you, dude!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Racing Times Texas

After Milwaukee, and three weeks/four weekends in Indy, plus Kansas, plus Long Beach, it was time for Texas. That's eight weekends in a row for some of the HPD guys-every weekend since Easter-and that's a l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong haul, folks. Everyone was tired.

Coming from the tight, old bullring at Milwaukee to the open, fast, high-banked TMS complex, where everything is "Big!" and "New!" has always been a bit of a culture shock, and this year was no different.

It first hits you as you drive west on Highway 114 from the airport. You come over a slight rise in the road and-boom!-you see the huge front-stretch grandstands facing you, and the tall (12-story?) Speedway Club suite complex. And, you're still five miles away from the track....

The Texas event was also our second of six races this year on 1.5-mile ovals. That's a big chunk of this year's 17-race schedule, so teams that are strong here are gonna be championship contenders (thank you, Captain Obvious). At Kansas, that had been the Ganassi twins, led by Dixie.

There were a few changes to note in the garage area. Paul Tracy had already had enough "fun" driving around an evil-handling A.J. Foyt car at Milwaukee, and as much as he wanted to race at Texas, I think Paul realized that the prospect of hauling the Foyt car around at an aero-dependent track like Texas was going to be an exercise in futility, so A.J. IV was in the #14 car.

After skipping Milwaukee (and almost missing Indy), Conquest was back at Texas with Alex Tagliani, his first time at Texas Motor Speedway since the infamous CART "non-race" in 2001. Sarah Fisher was also back, as planned.

Finally, veteran "old guard" IRL racer Jaques Lazier was aboard Greg Beck's Team 3G Dallara, in place of rookie/NASCAR transfer Stanton Barrett, who had missed Indy and had a heavy crash in the opening practice at Milwaukee. But Beck's very small team was still putting the car back together in the garage area throughout Thursday afternoon and evening, and Lazier missed the opening practice session.

We also faced our typically weird Texas schedule, with practice Thursday night, a final practice and qualifying Friday and the race on Saturday night. This could be a two-day show for both series (Thursday-Friday for the NASCAR trucks and Friday-Saturday for IndyCars), but track promoter Eddie Gossage wants BOTH series running on Thursday-so we did.

Dan Wheldon led that Thursday practice, followed by Danica Patrick and Ryan Briscoe. The Ganassi boys were fourth and fifth, led by Dario so, at least at the time, the field looked to be a bit more balanced than at Kansas.

The second practice, held during the heat of the day on Friday, was a bit more telling, as Team Penske moved to the front, with Wheldon slipping to third. This was a good indicator of race speed, as most teams worked on race setups in this session after using Thursday night to work on the changes needed for qualifying. As on Thursday night, this session was also incident-free, unless you count the camera mount falling off Mario Moraes's car.

Off track, the Dreyer & Reinbold team held a press conference to announce that Tomas Scheckter would run with them for most of the rest of the season, thanks to health-drink sponsor Mona Vie stepping up, skipping only the road courses at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Infineon. Good news for Tomas, DRR and the series.

Qualifying was next, and Dario Franchitti took the pole, followed by Briscoe, Dixon and Castroneves. Behind the "Red Teams," Danica was best of the rest for AGR, followed by Moraes (who continued to impress, at least in practice), Wheldon, Marco A., "Bobby D" Doornbos and Ed Carpenter.

Meanwhile, normal Texas front-runner Tony Kanaan was mired back in 16th, still sore from his massive Indy crash and most definitely not happy. After writing off Mutoh's original backup car at the "500," and his own primary car with major damage from his Milwaukee fire, TK was back in his early-season backup car, a chassis that just hasn't worked for him any time he's used it this year.

Perhaps it's a hidden delamination issue in the tub, perhaps it's something else. In any event, it's a car Tony wants retired to show-car duty ASAP.

This was Dario's first time running Ganassi "Energizer" colors, a good-looking blue paint scheme that had been campaigned four previous times by teammate Dixon-and won all four times (Watkins Glen once, and twice at Nashville). No pressure, then.

Oh yeah, there was a truck race later that night. A truck won. I don't know which one, I was already back at the Marriott bar....

Next came Race Day and the biggest (literally!) off-track news was the appearance of Shaquille O'Neal, the 15-time NBA All-Star now with the Phoenix Suns, as grand marshal and a charity partner of the Luczo Dragon team.

Now, I'm a fairly big guy (6'2", 195 lbs), but standing next to Shaq (who's 7'1" and 325 lbs-or more) makes me look like some kind of emaciated little person....

Luczo Dragon has partnered with several top athletes in recent years to raise money for various charities, more than $1 million to date. This was O'Neal's first IndyCar race and his first visit to Texas Motor Speedway, and he appeared to be impressed and enjoying himself.

In addition to giving the command to start engines, Shaq took part with the Luczo Dragon boys in a pre-race simulated pit stop, trying hard to keep up with the team regulars as he changed the right front wheel. He couldn't match their speed, but nobody else on the team could raise an entire wheel and tire assembly overhead with one hand, like he was spinning a dinner plate....

He also got to ride with Johnny Rutherford in the Honda Accord safety car on the pace lap to start the race. Truly, it must be good to be Shaq.

As for the race, we once again had a crash in the opening laps, as some drivers seemed to forget they were driving on a "green" race track-devoid of IndyCar's Firestone rubber and full of NASCAR's Goodyear leftovers. A BUNCH of guys got sideways here and there in the first lap, then Graham Rahal lost it all together exiting Turn 2 at the start of Lap 2, taking out E.J. Viso and Milka Duno on his way to hitting the inside wall. Scratch 3 from the field.

And for Viso, that made six DNF's in six races this year. Maybe it's time to re-think that Number 13, E.J.

On the restart, it soon became apparent that Penske-more specifically Briscoe-had a slightly better race setup, and Ryan set about absolutely dominating the race. Only a late caution and quicker stop from Castroneves kept Briscoe out of victory circle. It was Helio's third Texas win, tying him with Sam Hornish for the most IndyCar victories in Ft. Worth.

Until then, Ryan had been having a large, Texas-sized time, spanking the entire field, leading 160 of the 228 laps and at one point building up a HUGE, half-lap lead over the trailing Castroneves, Dixon & Co.

That all went away with a late-race, somewhat suspicious "debris" yellow, timed conveniently just within the window for final pit stops. Partly due to saving fuel by NOT leading, and partly due to having the pit stall nearest Pit-Out, Castroneves leap-frogged his teammate and was set to take his second win of the season.

Briscoe had to be content with just the bonus points for leading the most laps, and yet another second-place finish.

Speaking of disappointed, did I mention that the last stops were just barely inside the pit window? Well, somebody forgot to tell Dario that and-since he had a busy time trying to keep the strong-running Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti at bay-he ran out of fuel on the last lap, losing a position to Marco coming out of Turn 4.

And speaking of Marco, the littlest Andretti was steaming mad after the race. Seems that Little Miss Sunshine (aka "all bunnies and rainbows") Danica carved him up a bit while trying to defend fifth place in the closing laps (TV didn't show it, but Kanaan-who was just behind both of them-said as much after the race).

But after a couple of chops and blocks, Andretti eventually got by Danica for fifth, and then got a gift-wrapped present from Dario in the form of fourth place on the last lap. Hey, the post-race discussion between Patrick and Andretti made for fun TV, if nothing else.

Final Notes
  • If nothing else, Saturday night races are good for our TV ratings, with the Versus broadcast from Texas earning a 0.36 rating (467,000 households). Now, that's not a number to do handstands over-for example Milwaukee the previous week on ABC was a 0.6 (852,000 households)-but it WAS a decided uptick from the Versus numbers for Long Beach and Indy qualifying. Baby steps, folks, baby steps. ESPN wasn't much of a force in the early days, either
  • Speaking of Versus, I've got to criticize one aspect of the telecast: director Terry Lingner got his commercial timing wrong this week. Apparently thinking we'd have more yellows early in the contest, he held back from commercial breaks until nearly halfway through the race, then had to make up the difference by having frequent breaks between the final round of pit stops and the checkers, which kinda negated a lot of the late-race drama. Oh well, hindsight is always 20-20
  • But props to Jon Beekhuis and the announce crew, who gave us some major props during the telecast, including a nice bit on the work being done to develop a safety switch connected to the refueling buckeye, to help reduce the instances of drivers exiting the pits with the fuel hose still attached
  • The crowd was great, too. I would guess a legitimate 70,000+, maybe even 75,000. It was much larger than the previous night's Truck race attendance, and continued a pleasant trend where the IndyCar crowd turnout has been higher at every venue on the schedule this year, except for Kansas (and I blame both the weather and the stupidly late Sunday afternoon/evening starting time for that)
  • Hey, all of you single girls out there (and even those listing themselves as "it's complicated" on FaceBook), Tony Kanaan and the fine folks at the indycar.com Web site are conducting a contest just for you. It's called "Let's Find a Girlfriend for Hideki." Seems that TK had taken pity on Mutoh's recent run of bad luck in the dating department and now you can e-mail him directly at datehideki@indycar.com. Photos and videos are encouraged. But any interested girls should be at least somewhat bi-lingual, as Hideki's English is, um, errr, "rudimentary" at best
  • Texas also brought home something a lot of us noticed at both Kansas and Indy: we need to tweak "the package" a bit. For whatever reason, drivers are finding it nearly impossible this year to run side-by-side - or even closely nose-to-tail. Could be "dirty air" coming off the leading car, something with the tire construction, or a combination of factors. But we need to figure out what it is and fix it for Chicago, Motegi and Homestead. Normally, I'd include the Kentucky 1.5-miler as well, but I hear that track may have, other, more serious surface issues (i.e., major bumps) that must be addressed as well
  • Finally, in the "No Rest for the Wicked Department", the week after Texas was - in theory - our first "off" weekend since Kansas. In practice, however, more than half the field went testing between Texas and Iowa. So we sent engineers to Chicagoland, Iowa, Richmond and Watkins Glen.
But hey, at least I had the weekend off!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Racing Times: Indy 500

Unless you stayed in Indy for the week between Bump Day and the race, you probably weren't aware of the many off-track activities, held primarily for the benefit of the locals, that go on during the buildup to "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

They began with what we call "The New York Stunt" - flying all 33 race qualifiers to New York City for a media day in the Big Apple. But there were also the "Front Row Party," held in the Broadripple section of Indianapolis (think of a MUCH smaller version of West Hollywood, with bars, restaurants, a comedy club, etc. catering to the 20-something crowd); the "Last Row Party" for those at the other end of the grid , "Jeans & Jewels" (a fashion show of sorts), etc., etc.,

An offshoot of the New York Stunt was Sarah Fisher's appearance on "The Daily Show with John Stewart", where she more than held her own with a pretty good interview. Sarah also showed up on the "Price is Right" game show, where she presented a Honda Insight to a winning contestant. That show was actually taped back in April, but conveniently aired during race week.

In addition, the front-row drivers made an appearance on the late-night Jimmy Fallon show; and Graham Rahal appeared on "EXTRA" (during a segment entitled "Hottest IndyCar Series Drivers").

Of course, the biggest news of Sunday night and Monday morning was that "Bump Day" this year didn't really end at 6 p.m. local time Sunday evening. Instead, it was more like 10 p.m. when word got out that Bruno Junqueira had been "bumped" from the Conquest Racing car he had qualified with a bare minimum number of laps on Sunday, to be replaced by the team's full-time driver, Alex Tagliani, who also had the speed to make the show on merit, but got left out after the team twice pulled him out of the qualifying line in the final hour.

Both guys deserved to be in the show - and a case could be made that at least two (or more) others among those made the field, did not. But that's the sort of thing that makes Indy Bump Day special.

Since, at Indy, it's the car that qualifies, and not the driver, Conquest could simply opt to replace Bruno with Tagliani, the team's full-time driver. And that's how it played out.

The garage area remained relatively busy all week, as teams disassembled and then rebuilt their cars; and installed their race engines following a "mass delivery" on Tuesday morning. The Indy Lights teams also moved back into the garage area on Wednesday, setting up camp in the F-1 garages under the pit-lane grandstands.

Additionally, KV Racing confirmed that Paul Tracy would indeed be driving for the team at Toronto and Edmonton, good news for the many north-of-the-border fans of the Thrill from West Hill.

BTW, on Wednesday afternoon after the commotion that is "Community Day" at the Speedway (basically, a day of autograph-signing and picture-posing), the Team Penske boys were practicing pit stops back in the garage area. One hour for each car, starting with the #12 (crewed by Penske's Grand-Am team, probably the least familiar with IndyCar-style stops). Then the #3, and finally the #6. Stop after stop after stop, anticipating things that might go wrong - and how to react to them. All in search of Penske perfection.

Friday night, Indianapolis Star reporter Curt Cavin hosted his second annual "Carb Night Burger Bash" at a place called 96th Street Steakburgers on the northeast side of Indy. Last year's inaugural party had about 500 attendees, but this year - with 2005 Indy 500 winner and permanent FOH (Friend of Honda) Dan Wheldon as the featured speaker - more than 1,000 people turned up at the Indy equivalent to a local In-n-Out Burger stand.

Yeah, the place was packed, with a live auction, Dan's appearance and a portion of the proceeds (2,000 burgers and 500 shakes sold) benefiting local charities.

Carb Day

Moving the traditional "Carburetion Day" to Friday, coupled with the addition of the Indy Lights race, made for a true, three-day race weekend. It also made Carb Day the second-highest attendance day of the month, well surpassing Pole Day.

Friday's festivities included a concert (3 Doors Down this year), the annual pit stop contest, and the Lights race. Paul Tracy and the Geico "Cave Man" also made an appearance on stage.

As a result, you encounter several distinctive crowd "types" on Carb Day. You have the high-end, sponsor-type crowd, found primarily in the suites and hospitality areas. On Carb Day, they tend to arrive late and leave early.

Next are the hard-core race fans, who spend their day programming scanners, hanging out in the garage area seeking autographs, and kicking back in the upper grandstands on the outside of the front stretch.

Then, you've got the families. Lots of kids in the facility with their parents, checking out the race cars and generally just having a good time. This also is a group heavy into autographs and other souvenir items.

Last - but by no means least - there is the party crowd. In the recent past, we've noticed that this crowd arrives a little later because they will be planning to stay for the concert, bringing in their handy 48 packs or coolers full of margarita and Bloody Mary mixes. Hard core. By 3 p.m. or so, they're the ones left (mostly) standing, or leaning, or passed out on the grass.....

As for Carb Day practice itself, well, when you're hot, you're hot. Pole sitter Helio Castroneves continued his streak of good fortune, leading the field in the final hour-long practice session. He also learned that the final tax evasion charge against him had been dropped - and won the pit-stop competition as well! And did I mention his hot new girlfriend????

Speaking of hot, this was by far the warmest day of the month to date, with ambient temps in the mid-80s and a track temp of about 105 degrees - about 10 degrees warmer than any other time this year.

Will Power had the Verizon Wireless car second quick, behind just Helio. Despite everything he has been through this year - jumping into Helio's car, then out of Helio's car at Long Beach, skipping Kansas, etc. - through it all, Power has consistently been fast, and "The Captain" (R. Penske, Esq.) likes that!

In recent years, we had restricted the number of laps run by each team during Carb Day, in the interest of preserving engine reliability. This year, that restriction was off and the teams responded accordingly, racking up a record number of Carb Day laps, the most since Honda became the sole IndyCar engine supplier in 2006. Several drivers ran more than 50 laps (1/4 race distance) and there was a lot of drafting and some very interesting moves coming out of Turn 4 and into Turn 1.

Dan Wheldon in particular seemed good at working that traffic, a good indicator of what was to come on Sunday; and the KV cars all continued to impress, with Mario Moraes timed third quick, Townsend Bell ninth, and Paul Tracy 12th.

As previously mentioned, Helio and his Rick Rinaman-led Team Penske crew won their third consecutive pit-stop contest, defeating Marco Andretti and his AGR team in the final. Like I said earlier, when you're hot, you're scorchin'.

The other on-track activity of the day was the Freedom 100, the Indy Lights race, which served as a prelude for Sunday's "500" in more ways than one.....

At the start, pole qualifier Wade Cunningham took the early lead, but on Lap 5, JR Hildebrand passed BOTH teammate Sebastian Saavedra and Cunningham going into Turn 1 to move out front. Those three would soon break away from the rest of the field - at least until the crashing and bashing started, as the race devolved into a typical Indy Lights event at IMS: green, crash, yellow, repeat.

Crashers included BOTH Panther cars (together!); Gustavo Yacaman and Ana Beatriz (a BIG one, from which Ana was fortunate to escape injury); Charlie Kimball and Mike Potekhen.

Between yellows, Hildebrand had his hands full holding off Saavedra, Cunningham and, from mid-race onward, Mario Romancini as well. He probably used up too much of his car (read, tires) in the process and on Lap 38 (of 40) Cunningham got around Hildebrand entering Turn 3.

On the last lap, Saavedra took himself out of the picture, as he "whitewalled" his tires exiting Turn 1 with what was actually a reasonably hard contact. He was able to continue, but had to lift off, which cost him the draft from the lead group.

Down the back stretch for the final time, Wade got a bit of a lead, but that closed up as they went through the north part of the track. Through Turn Four, it looked like JR might be able to draft past before the checker, but it was not to be. Cunningham claimed a one-car-length win over Hildebrand, with Romancini a close third. After getting a good jump on the last restart, former series champ Jay Howard was fourth, while Saavedra limped home in fifth.

Race Day

Sooooo, my Bump Day predictions may have been just a "leetle bit" off (kinda like the Titanic was going just a bit too fast through ice), but I was pretty much spot-on with my race predictions, wasn't I?????

The race was Penske's - and more specifically, Helio's - to win or lose, and, after a bit of a slow start, "twinkletoes" came through for his third Indy 500 win. Both Power and Briscoe were right there, as well. Either might have won, but for an apparent tire issue on Briscoe's car mid-race, and a long pit stop for Power from Penske's normal Grand-Am race team.

But early in the race, it looked like either Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti might just upset the Penske applecart. Both were really quick - particularly on restarts - and the duo combined to lead the most laps. At Lap 100, it was Dixie just in front of Dario, and I was thinking we were headed for another Ganassi win. But then came "pit stops from hell" for each.

Dario was first to fall back, as he misinterpreted a hand signal from the right-front tire changer on his Lap 134 stop, and started to leave the pits with the fuel hose still attached. He avoided a fuel spill and eventually got out in ninth. But his car wasn't as good in traffic as it had been out front, and that was basically it for the '07 winner.

As for the defending race champion, Dixie's problem pit stop came during the next round, when a problem changing the right-rear wheel dropped him from second to sixth. Those same traffic issues meant no repeat for Scott, either.

Taking those four (Power, Briscoe, Dixon, Franchitti) out of the picture - along with Tony Kanaan's crash (more on that later) - presented an opportunity for several in the "second pack" crowd to move up. Dan Wheldon and Danica Parick were the biggest beneficiaries, with Townsend Bell not far behind.

Wheldon and his Panther Racing team straightened out what had been a very poor month (by their standards) with a strong Carb Day run. They backed that up with an equally stout race, making up positions both in the pits and on track. They didn't have anything for Helio on Race Day, but were definitely "best of the rest" still around on Lap 200 and deserved their second-place finish.

After an early miscue when she overshot her pit box, Danica also had an excellent day for her best Indy finish yet, and one of the few rays of light in an otherwise dark AGR day.

Meanwhile, Bell made the absolute most of his one-off appearance with KV Racing after his teammates fell by the wayside. Bell drove a textbook "500", hanging around there or there-about for the first 150 laps, then putting his head down and getting on with the job for the final 50. You could make the argument that KV Racing has surpassed Newman Haas Lanigan as the top ex-Champ Car team in the IRL.

Also making the most of his chance with KV was former altar boy (not!) Paul Tracy, who MIGHT have been up there with Wheldon/Patrick/Bell at the finish but for getting caught up in Kanaan's crash. Debris from Tony's crash damaged the nose and punched a hole in the tunnel of PT's car. So, for the last half of the race, Tracy had a car that was pretty loose.

Still, on restarts, we all got to see why PT is so popular, as he charged as high as he could with every restart, regularly running two-wide into Turn 1 (ask Danica) and once even three-wide coming out of Turn 2 (ask Mutoh, who got put on the grass as a result!). Tracy would pick off several positions with every restart, but then lose them as his handling deteriorated.

With all his moves up and down in the order, Tracy was probably directly linked to two-thirds or more of all the passes in the race! If you get the chance, go to U-tube and check out the moving speech he gave at Monday night's awards dinner. For all his faults, it's obvious that PT at age 40 still loves IndyCar racing.

Somewhat ironically, it was KV's sole full-time entry that was the first retirement. Moraes took his typically high line into Turn One at the start (which I predicted would get him in trouble, just not this early!), and Marco Andretti was already there. The two tangled, ending Moraes race on the spot, and eventually Andretti's, too.

But there's a bit more to the story. On the pace lap and after their initial radio check, Moraes' spotter (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) decided to change radios to try and improve reception with his driver. Only he didn't check the frequency on the spare radio and, of course, it was tuned to the wrong channel. Consequently, Mario never heard the words "car high, car high"......

Also as I (ahem) predicted, impatience once again put Graham Rahal in the wall. In almost an exact replay of 2008, Rahal moved ever-so-slightly out of the groove while trying to pass the constantly-weaving Milka Duno entering Turn 4, and sure enough, got caught up in the dreaded "wall-suck", smacking the fence on the exit to end his race.

Another potential race winner eliminated by a crash - through no fault of his own - was Tony Kanaan, who finished an absolutely torrid month grinding along the Turn 3 wall and was VERY lucky not to wind up at Methodist Hospital, or worse.

Just before the halfway point, while running third behind the Ganassi boys and just biding his time, something broke on the right rear of the #11 car midway down the back straight, and TK instantly turned HARD into the outside wall (a 70g hit), then caromed off the fence minus the right sidepod and right-rear wheel to hit Turn 3 even harder (170g!).

Attention, all troglodytes and members of the flat-earth society who would like to see IndyCars return to a "cheaper" formula using tube frames and/or aluminum tubs - crashes much less severe than TK's were normally fatal in the cars made of those materials. Carbon tubs and SAFER barriers (along with the HANS device) have combined to produce huge steps forward in safety in recent years.

As for what caused Tony's crash, at first I thought a rear-axle tripod had failed, as there have been issues with those in the past, and you could see the right-side axle depart from the car. But team members believe a right-rear toe-link failed first, causing the right-rear wheel to toe-in (which would both turn the car hard right and likely spit out the axle as well). I'll go with that.

The other big crash of the day took place in the closing laps, as Rafa Matos got a brief case of the red mist entering Turn 1, and tried to pull alongside Vitor Meira. The resulting crash sent Vitor to Methodist with two fractures of the lower back, and blotted what had been an almost perfect rookie month for Matos, ending his chances at a nearly certain Rookie of the Year award.

Vitor already was having an "exciting" day, as a stuck buckeye led to a fuel fire during a mid-race pit stop. He survived that, and even was able to continue on the lead lap, only to end his season in the "South Chute" between Turns 1 and 2.

Like Kanaan, Meira had a huge impact, almost head-on into the wall. Photos showed him bending forward to the point that his helmet nearly contacted the steering wheel. The impact damaged the crash data recorder to the point where no "g" information was available. But the nose of the car compressed into the front of the tub, and the tub itself distorted and split back on itself. It looked a lot like the result of an FIA frontal impact test. Most importantly, Vitor sustained no injuries to either his feet or lower legs.

Again, not too long ago, a crash like that would have left a driver with a permanent limp, like Mark Dismore, Rick Mears, Derek Daly, Nelson Piquet, etc According to Dr. Terry Trammell, Meira will be out at least four months, but at least he did not need surgery and was able to walk out of the hospital while fitted with a back brace on the Wednesday following the race.

Matos' miscue left the rookie award wide open, and Alex Tagliani was quick to say "thank you very much, I'll take it". After starting last in a car actually qualified by temporary teammate Bruno Junqueira, Tags made the most of his situation to make up 22 places during the race. Eleventh was just about the best the under-funded Conquest team could expect, and Tags and his team delivered.

Some final thoughts & notes:
" Although suite sales were off appreciably, the grandstand crowd was definitely up this year, with none of the previous gaps in Turn 4, etc. Carb Day was up noticeably, too, both in numbers and intake of alcohol ...
" Passing, however, was down, except on restarts. It's just my opinion, but I think the cars need more mechanical grip on the ovals, and need to generate less turbulence behind. It's gotten very hard for drivers to closely follow each other, and running side-by-side (unless you were Paul Tracy, passing or being passed) was almost impossible.
" Ed Carpenter may not be much of a road racer, but he sure can drive on ovals. He took a less-than-perfect Vision car and got more out of it than one could reasonably expect to finish eighth. He might even have finished higher, but for a deft chop/block by Dario with a couple of laps to go.
" On May 4, I drove to Indy in a solid rain all the way from St. Louis. On May 25, I drove home - also in a solid rain for all 230 miles. Fitting.

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