HPD Blog

Monday, July 27, 2009

Racing Times: Watkins Glen

(or, The Day The Minnow Ate The Sharks)

Along with Siebkens (near Road America), the Seneca Lodge, just down the hill from Watkins Glen International Raceway, is probably the most historic bar in US road racing.

And like Siebkens, the Seneca IS kind of a musty old place. I can’t recommend staying in one of the Lodge’s several cabins, unless you’re particularly keen on hot- and cold-running rust. But the restaurant is first-rate, and the bar, well, that’s the true reason one HAS to go to the Seneca Lodge on a race weekend. It’s 60 years of motor-racing history, contained in a single room.

Behind the bar hang actual winners’ wreaths from Formula One races in the ’60s. Dry and withered, but proudly on display. Photos abound, from the original race through the village streets in 1948, through the early ‘50s, then moving to the permanent racing facility atop the hill overlooking Seneca Lake. Team stickers, cards, graffiti, dollar bills, pound notes, deutschmarks, rands, trophies and other mementos are everywhere.

It’s a “who-was-who” through 60 years of sports-car, Grand Prix and yes, even NASCAR racing: Bill Kimberly, Briggs Cunningham, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Pedro Rodriguez, Gilles Villeneuve and Mark Donohue; Phil Hill & Graham Hill; Peter Revson & Peter Gregg; Jack Brabham, Geoff Brabham and local hero Geoff Bodine; Jim Hall, Jim Clark and even Jimmy “Smut” Means….

And they serve Molson’s, too.

The tradition continued on Sunday night following the IndyCar race, with a celebration that was literally 25 years in the making.

Dale and Gail Coyne, their entire crew, race winner Justin Wilson and his family all headed to the Lodge on Sunday evening to celebrate their historic win — the first for the Coyne team in 2½ decades of CART, ChampCar and now IndyCar competition – and pay homage to decades of racers and winners who had come before them and celebrated there.

Justin, his wife and daughter, his parents, and his younger brother Stefan, who raced on Saturday in Indy Lights, were the first to arrive. Rather than go through the side entrance to the bar, they entered the lodge through the restaurant, generating delight, surprise and applause from a room full of knowledgeable diners. A couple of minutes later, Dale and Gail Coyne made the same entrance to a standing ovation; Dale still wearing the winner's wreath and carrying the Victory Circle champagne.

By then, the rest of the team was already in the bar…..

After a symbolic exchange of the wreath from owner to driver, Wilson slipped behind the bar, as many of the most famous names in open-wheel history had done before him, and hung his victory wreath on the wall, the bright green leaves a sharp contrast to the long since dried-out wreaths of days gone by.

“Encouraged” by the now large, and loud, audience, Dale joined Justin behind the bar, both still beaming from the day’s events, for an impromptu photo op for those lucky enough to be there.

Not to be left out, the entire Dale Coyne Racing crew then hopped behind the bar, to join their leader and driver in celebration, making their own mark on this historic day, and joining in with the chants of the Seneca patrons. It was cool.

So, after 558 race starts since 1985 from 61 different drivers – ranging in ability from Wilson, Bruno Junqueira and Paul Tracy to the likes of Fulvio Ballabio and the legendary Guido Dacco – Coyne Racing has finally triumphed. But it has always persevered. First, it was as a low-buck operation with owner/driver Dale; then, as a field-filling team for rent-a-riders with more funding and ego than talent; and sometimes (rarely), as a place for a young, hungry driver like PT to make a strong initial impression before rapidly moving up to a “real” team.

But slowly, almost imperceptibly, in recent years Coyne has raised his game. Like many of his fellow CART team owners in the mid-1990s, Dale made out like a bandit, buying low and selling high when CART made its ill-fated move to a publicly-traded company. But unlike many of those owners, he used the cash windfall to, in part, fund the development of Route 66 Speedway, a drag strip and dirt oval outside his home base of Joliet, Ill.

He also began to hire – or at least provide “free” rides – to real racing drivers such as Memo Gidley (probably his first non-paying driver), Roberto Moreno, Cristiano da Matta and finally, Bruno Junqueira.

Of course, most of his “mechanics” still were either trade-school dropouts, or hard-working but unskilled kids for whom English was a second language… And the second car was still driven by a Charles Nearburg, or the like.

A true story: When Memo Gidley drove for Coyne, he missed part or all of every practice session during his first race weekend because the car just wasn’t ready yet. Monday after that race, Memo loaded up his toolbox and drove from his apartment in Indy up to Joliet to become the effective crew chief/driver for the rest of his term with the team.

Eventually, International Speedway Corporation came a-calling, looking for land in the Chicago area to build another one of its cookie-cutter 1.5-mile speedways. Conveniently enough, Dale owned a chunk of land right next to his “Route 66” facility and – voila! – Chicagoland Speedway was born.

Then, a couple of years ago, Dale cashed out once more at exactly the right time. He sold all his Chicagoland shares back to ISC for – ahem – a “tidy” profit.

But again, instead of retiring to Bora Bora with Gail, Dale plowed at least some of that largesse (not ALL of it, he’s not that dumb!) back into the race team, in the form of hiring engineers and mechanics worthy of the name – plus, continuing to provide a hope for talented, otherwise unemployed race-car drivers.

Ron Barhorst, a quiet but effective crew chief, came on board in 2007; Dale Fife and Glen Knabenshocks last year; and, perhaps most importantly, ex-Walker/Ganassi engineer Bill Pappas at the start of this season.

Mind you, Dale Coyne Racing is still ‘nowhere’ on the ovals – I doubt if the car has ever been inside a wind tunnel or on a seven-post rig. But on the road and street courses, the team is now within a shout – as demonstrated at the season-opening St. Petersburg race, where Wilson almost pulled off the upset win that finally came their way at Watkins Glen.

At Watkins Glen, Pappas out-engineered and Wilson out-drove the competition.

That weekend, the alternate, softer Firestone ‘Red’ tires worked great for tons of laps, but for only one heat cycle. Once they’d been cooled and re-heated on the track, they quickly went off. But when they were on that original heat cycle, they were decidedly quicker than the standard ‘Blacks’.

Each team gets three sets of ‘Reds’ per weekend, and four sets of ‘Blacks’. Teams must use at least one set of each during the race. MOST teams use at least two sets of ‘Reds’ during qualifying. But the Coyne team used only one, so they had two brand new sets of ‘Reds’ for Sunday.

Because the Red/Black difference was so substantial at The Glen, Ganassi and a couple of other teams started on one-session-old ‘Reds’ from qualifying. It was a decision that backfired badly, as the tires started graining after only 10 laps or so, effectively killing the victory chances of both Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

Race notes: Coyne won on Saturday by saving a second set of ‘Reds’ for the race. ‘Reds’ worked great for tons of laps, but only one heat cycle – something that killed the Ganassi guys during the first segment, as they started on used ‘Reds’.

Wilson, meanwhile, started out on ‘Reds,’ did a short middle stint on ‘Blacks’, then still had a set of brand new ‘Reds’ to finish out the day.

How effective was that strategy? Wilson set his fastest race lap—and the third fastest overall – on Lap 58 of 60, while pulling away from Ryan Briscoe after a Lap 55 restart. The Penske driver, on ‘Blacks’, had nothing for Wilson.

BTW, who had the fastest race lap? Briscoe, who started the race on his last set of new ‘Reds’, set his marker on Lap 18. For the true race trivia nut, second-fastest laps of the race went to E.J. Viso, on his fresh ‘Reds’, but AFTER his early-race coming-together with Marco Andretti.

You could sense the energy along pit lane, as photographers, reporters, supporters and series personnel began gathering in and around the Dale Coyne Racing pit box in the waning laps of the race. Then came the tension, when that last yellow bunched up the field with just a handful of laps to go. But Wilson took the restart in dominant fashion – he definitely learned from his mistake at St. Pete – and the whole team was out on the pit wall to cheer their guy home at the checkers.

It was the first win for a team other than Penske or Ganassi this season. It was the day a minnow triumphed over the sharks.

A few, final notes from The Glen:

· I was great to see “Vic Meyers” (a.k.a. Vitor Meira) back at the race track for the first time since his Indy crash. He looks fit and ready to get back at it, but you know Dr. Trammell won’t let him even sit in an IndyCar until his six-month rehab is completed.

· The crowd at the Glen was again strong on this Fourth of July weekend, but there were definitely fewer cars with Canadian plates in the parking lots. Last year, there were a TON of Canadians in the crowd, but there was no Toronto race in 2008. I think the Glen management wants more separation between the two events. Coupled with the theory that a race on a non-holiday weekend might improve the corporate chalet numbers, I think you might see the date for this weekend move to the autumn next year.

· Finally, special props to the fine folks at Watkins Glen for preserving the Victory Circle traditions of both champagne and a laurel wreath for the winner. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other North America tracks that still do that.


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