HPD Blog

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Paddock Report - IndyCar Kentucky August 2009

Kentucky was a very significant race for two entirely different reasons:

  1. It was the first oval race since the IndyCar Series “gave back” several aero tools for the teams to use in an effort to restore side-by-side racing; and
  2. It was the first race to utilize the HPD “Power Assist” boost button to aid with passing.

But instead of an IndyCar race weekend with two full days of on-track activity, we had an event more typical of a local Sprint Car show, with one practice, no qualifying, and the race, all in one afternoon/evening.

How much that skewed the results of all these changes is open to debate; but there is no doubt that Kentucky, in the immortal words of Ed Sullivan, “was a really, really good shew…..” It was by far the best oval race of 2009, and one of the best races, period.

And we, almost … almost …almost, had a very popular “underdog” winner.

It was clear and sunny when we rolled into the track on Friday morning, but it had rained a ton in recent days, no fewer than 6” worth – probably more than you’d see in the greater L.A. area all summer. The result was a group of “weepers” – underground water being hydraulically pushed UP through the track surface, primarily in Turns 3-4.

Practice did not start at 3 p.m. as scheduled, and eventually the teams were told that it would be another hour (at least) before practice started. HAH! Someone was dreaming in color. No one would get on track on this day. So, it was back to the hotel after a lovely day of sitting around and doing nothing. Qualifying for IndyCars was cancelled, so they would once again line up on points this weekend, leading Dario Franchitti to joke that teammate (and then-points leader) Scott Dixon “got a trophy just for sitting on his [insert slang phrase for buttocks here] in his bus all day!”

Dario also got off the second-best quote of the day, saying he was going to put a “smiley face” on his new power-assist button …

And that was about it for Friday, except for the 2010 schedule announcement. More on that at the end of this week’s segment.

The “weepers” were still around on Saturday. But eventually, track and series workers got the last of them drained, and we got on with the show. And what a show it was! In the immortal words of fellow-blogger “Pressdog”, IndyCar got its “schwerve” back. It was fast … it was exciting … it had a near-photo finish. And, most importantly, it managed to tread that fine, fine line between “thrilling” and “terrifying”.

Despite just over an hour of practice prior to the green flag (hence the Sprint Car analogy at the top of this tale), the teams and drivers put on a fantastic show, running hard and clean all night long. Ryan Briscoe and Ed Carpenter went wheel-to-wheel, eyeball-to-eyeball, for the final 10 laps or so, before Briscoe eked out the victory.

And the racing was just as fast and furious throughout the field. Series officials got EXACTLY what they were seeking: lots of two-, three-, and four-car battles, all either side-by-side or nose-to-tail, with passing and re-passing, but without creating a huge, scary pack of 15-20 cars all running in lockstep, where the slightest misstep could lead to the Mother of All Big Ones….

All credit to the technical and executive staff of the series – along with Honda and Firestone – for recognizing there was a problem after Kansas, Texas and Richmond, and taking steps to correct it. And a special assist to the powers-that-be at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, who initially suggested the course of action that produced such a great race, and will hopefully offer up exciting, side-by-side competition through upcoming oval events at Chicago(land), Motegi and Homestead-Miami.

Here’s who did what:

At TCGR’s suggestion, the league mandated the removal of the half-inch vertical Gurney lips (a.k.a. “wickers”) on the rear-wing endplates. Designed to slow the cars down on the big ovals, they did that, but at too high a price in the form of very turbulent, “dirty” air coming off the backs of the cars, which caused following cars to lose downforce and “wash up the track” with understeer.

The Series also permitted teams to re-install several aerodynamic pieces, including ramps in front of the rear wheels, extensions to the tops of the sidepods, and rear wheel “fillers” (call them “inner hubcaps”). These changes also cleaned up airflow coming off the backs of the cars. These changes were optional, but just about everyone put one or more of the pieces back on.

In addition, Firestone came up with a much-improved tire that offered more mechanical grip and also helped get everybody closer together.

And last – but certainly not least – we provided the power-assist button that maximized everything at HPD’s disposal, providing brief bursts of additional bhp to help “seal the deal” when it came to passing lapped cars, and adding a new tactical element when it came to fighting for position on track.

It wasn’t any one thing, but the combination of all that produced some great racing, so big props to one and all.

The other big news to come out of Kentucky was the 2010 calendar. If you haven’t already seen it, the 17-race schedule goes like this:

- Sun. March 14: Brazil (venue TBA, but maybe Tony Kanaan’s home town of Salvador)
- Sun. March 28: Honda GP of St. Pete
- Sun. April 11: Barber Motorsports Park
- Sun. April 18: Long Beach
- Sat. May 1: Kansas
- Sun. May 30: Indy 500
- Sat. June 5: Texas
- Sun. June 20: Iowa
- Sun. July 4: Watkins Glen
- Sun. July 18: Honda Indy Toronto
- Sun. July 25: Edmonton
- Sun. August 8: Honda 200 at Mid-Ohio
- Sun. August 22: Infineon
- Sat. August 28: Chicagoland
- Sat. September 4: Kentucky
- Sun. September 19: Motegi, Japan
- Sat. October 2: Homestead

That’s nine road/street courses and eight ovals, meaning that for the first time, the IndyCar schedule will include more road courses than ovals. The near 50/50 split is great, the only downer is the near-total absence of my beloved short ovals. Milwaukee – dead. Richmond – AWOL. No Phoenix or New Hampshire. Only Iowa lives on, and it’s the one short oval that drives like a super speedway. Oh well.

As for the newcomers, Barber Motorsports Park has earned a spot on the calendar after the excellent job – and spectator turnout – produced for our pre-season test this year. Likewise, Brazil (through Apex Energy) is the biggest sponsor the sport has at the moment, and the deal is structured in such a way that both the League and every team running the event will show a tidy profit for their presence.

Now, if only we’d get Road America back on the schedule…

As for my late, lamented Milwaukee Mile – until the State Fair Board (which controls the venue) restructures the track lease so that the promoter isn’t immediately saddled with millions of dollars in debt before he even opens the doors, well, it’s just notgonnahappen.com. And that is just a shame.

Richmond lost its event sponsor (SunTrust Bank) and didn’t appear to try very hard to find a replacement. Its NASCAR crowds have also been down of late, and I’m guessing the track would rather move its IRL marketing budget over to supporting its Cup events. Sorry to say, but it looks like another short track has gone the way of the Dodo, at least as far as the IndyCar Series is concerned.

In the Good News Department, the stretches of back-to-back-to-back races, a.k.a. “marriage killers” we’ve had in recent years are gone, mainly those that were run in June-July-August. Now, there’s just the April-May swing of Kansas-Indy’s four weekends-Texas; and the late-August threesome of Infineon, Chicago and Kentucky (moving from July to Saturday of Labor Day Weekend). That’s do-able.

Also, whether by accident or design, the season unfolds in streaks of street races, then ovals, then road/street races, then ovals once again — a layout that’s MUCH easier on teams and mechanics in terms of car preparation, logistics, etc.

Some final notes from Kentucky:

· To the surprise of virtually no one, Conquest Racing and “commercial partner” Rubicon Sports Agency have terminated their unhappy marriage.

· In the follow-up that WAS surprising, however, Conquest driver Alex Tagliani left the team and threw in his lot with Rubicon’s Jim Freudenberg. That was followed by the even more interesting news that one-or-the-other of them had found a Canadian source of income (not yet revealed) that allowed them to purchase Marty Roth’s team, shop and cars in Indianapolis. Hmmm, Marty Roth is a Canadian, too. Methinks there’s more here that has yet to be told.

· The Roth team owned four Dallaras, at least two of them new or reasonably new. A one-driver IndyCar effort can get by with only two chassis (although three is better) and reportedly two of Tag’s new toys have been sold to…..(wait for it)…..de Ferran Motorsports …

· Meanwhile, Conquest Racing regrouped and sat out Mid-Ohio (in addition to Kentucky), but will run Kosuke Matsuura at Motegi and Champ Car refugee Nelson Phillipe at Infineon and…. oh well, that didn’t last long, either. Watch this space for further developments.

· Vitor Meira was again present at Kentucky, and continues to help out in the A.J. Foyt pit, sitting in on the engineering meetings, working with Ryan Hunter-Reay on setup and strategy decisions, etc. And all the while knowing he’d much, much rather be back driving.

· Darren Manning was also in Kentucky (just a short drive down from Indy) and likewise was hanging out in the Dreyer and Reinbold pit.

· At least he still has his sense of humor department: Tony Kanaan had some decals placed on the cockpit sides of his car (where the driver’s name normally is printed). They read: "The Torch".

· I don’t “Twitter” yet – although I can see the day coming when I might be doing so. In the meantime, Vision Racing is perhaps the biggest proponent of this new social network in the IndyCar paddock (you can follow them @VisionRacing on Twitter), and the team has started hosting “Tweet-ups” for Twitter fans on race weekends. Once you’re in the paddock/garage area, it’s free. Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star and several drivers (Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, etc) are “Tweeting” these days as well.

· Friday was Justin Wilson's 31st birthday - the fans sang Happy Birthday to him at the autograph session. Always fun.


-- Dan Layton

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