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!

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