HPD Blog

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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