HPD Blog

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Paddock Report: Chicago(land) 8/29/09

Chicagoland marked the start of the “home stretch” for the 2009 IndyCar championship, the first of three oval races to cap an interesting season.

All three are 1.5-mile circle tracks, but each approaches the concept of turning left in a different way: Chicago has a “typical” 1.5-mile layout – really more of a ‘D’ shape – similar to Texas, Kansas and Kentucky; Motegi, meanwhile, is egg-shaped, wide open at one end, tight at the other; and finally, there’s the more “traditional” Homestead – two straights connected by two sweeping, 180-degree turns.

And so, to Chicago, where the new/old aero package had its second test since being unveiled/reinstated at Kentucky. Could we once again tread that very, very, very fine line between “boring” and “scary” that is known as “thrilling”?

Yes. But a couple of times – most notably in the final dozen or so laps after a late-race caution – it teetered, wobbled and generally leaned toward “terrifying” for a bit….

Still, in the immortal words of Robert Woodward Rahal, “no harm, no foul” and we had an exciting, near-photo finish with Ryan Briscoe coming out ahead of perpetual Chicagoland runner-up Scott Dixon, who summed things up perfectly after the finish: “I’ve seen this movie before!”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend was what didn’t happen. Going into the event, a lot of us were convinced that we’d see a press conference/announcement formalizing Danica Patrick’s return to the Michael Andretti-led team currently known as Andretti Green Racing.

It all made sense: She’d dropped hints at Mid-Ohio and again at Infineon that the deal was all but done; Chicagoland is the closest IndyCar track to both her hometown of Roscoe, Illinois, and the corporate headquarters of Motorola, her long-time sponsor; and she was scheduled to appear as featured guest on SPEED TV’s “Wind Tunnel” program Sunday night.

But, sometime during the days leading up to race weekend, something went at least slightly pear-shaped, and no announcement was forthcoming. Don’t know what, how or why, just yet. Hopefully, it’s being worked out, or has been, as you read this.

One thing that DID get announced at Chicagoland was the formation of a new IndyCar team called FAZZT, centered around driver Alex Tagliani. Tags bolted from Conquest following the Edmonton race, and most likely had this deal bubbling in the background at the time as he was joined by ex-Conquest “marketing partner” Jim Freudenberg, who has been involved with several IndyCar teams in recent years, starting with Kelley Racing back in ’00 or so. Throw in financing from a pair of Canadian businessmen – Andre Azzi [hence the team name] and Alexandre Dubresne, and the deal got done.

Together, they bought all four of Roth Racing’s cars, its equipment, and – in the most surprising move of all – hired long-time Walker Racing GM Rob Edwards to be team manager and run day-to-day operations. Rob had been with Walker for as long as I can remember – since at least ’95, if not longer – so, for the FAZZT group to hire him away is impressive.

In the new paint job department, Dario Franchitti was in a bright yellow “Lifelock” livery that he also planned to run in Japan; while former Andretti Green teammate Tony Kanaan traded 7-Eleven green for a shade of brown for one-off sponsor Oscar Meyer that provided fodder for several rude comparisons. TK himself twittered that he was driving a “Weinermobile” for the weekend.

It was another two-day oval “weekend” for us, with practice and qualifying on Friday, and the race on Saturday. ARCA and the NASCAR Truck series were also in attendance, which led to the oddity during qualifying of seeing the towering Michael Waltrip (seriously, this guy is 6-foot-5 if he’s an inch) walking around with Danica Patrick (5-foot-2, MAX) in Pit Lane, and surely setting off a new round of Danica-to-NASCAR rumors in the bargain. Mission accomplished, by both, I’m sure.

Another hot rumor in the garage area was “Takuma Sato to Luczo Dragon for Homestead”. Which, apparently, was more-or-less a done deal until Robin Miller got wind and actually printed it (horrors!). Once word got out, Luczo’s team owners got a bit sideways over the premature announcement, so it may not happen now. I guess we’ll find out during the second week in October.

In Indy Lights World, with just 16 cars in the field and JR Hildebrand needing only a 13th-place finish or better to clinch the title, the championship fight with impressive rookie teammate Sebastian Saavedra became a bit anti-climactic. Still, with Lights guys (and girls) on a 1.5-mile oval, you NEVER count your chickens before the checkers.

Trivia question: When is a “Home” race not really at home?

Answer: When you’re Newman Haas Lanigan Racing, and most of your team members live in the northern and northwest Chicago suburbs – an hour-plus (on a GOOD day’s commute) from Chicagoland Speedway. For those of you living in L.A., think commuting from HPD to Disneyland in Anaheim… So, the NHL guys all got hotel rooms in the Joliet area. Yes, kids, the metro Chicago area is spread out ALMOST as much as the Southland. So ends today’s geography lesson.

Unlike during the rushed race day at Kentucky, the teams had time to try out different aero options and combinations at Chicagoland. EVERYONE was running the inner rear-wheel covers, but after that, the setups varied considerably. For instance, in use of the kickups in front of the rear tires: AGR’s Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti utilized them, but Tony Kanaan and Hideki Mutoh did not. The NHL cars ran everything -- kickups and sidepod extensions included – but the Penskes were “clean,” without either piece. Ganassi ran the kickups but not the extensions, etc.

Finally, with MotoGP scheduled for the same weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a bunch of us (yrs trly incld) made the three-hour run south from Joliet to Indy either late, late, late Saturday night (due to the silly 9 p.m. start time for the IndyCar race) or early Sunday morning. It was fun, and I highly recommend that all of you check out the MotoGP scene sometime in the future.

On track, the lone practice was uneventful, with the usual suspects up front (Dixon, Briscoe, etc) and at the back (Milka, Jaques Lazier). No yellows, except a single track inspection. So, on to qualifying we went…..

…where it was an all-Penske front row, with Ryan Briscoe on the pole and Helio Castroneves alongside. Franchitti ran third, and the only mild surprise was Dixie a relatively poor sixth.

Who was in between? TK and Graham Rahal. For AGR, the long claw back towards respectability, begun at Kentucky, continued, with three cars in the top 10 and Mutoh not that far off in 13th. KV and NHL also continued to inch up on the “Big Two,” with Moraes eighth and Oriol Servia ninth, to go with teammate Rahal.

The 20-minute final practice was rather “spirited”, with lots of two-and-three-wide action and the session ending with most of the field running in a large pack. As I said at the top of this piece, it’s a VERY fine line between “thrilling” and “scary”. We were definitely straddling that line…

Saturday was Race Day for IndyCars, and Practice/Qualifying/Race Day for the Lights crowd, who, for the second time this season –and first time by design – would have a Sprint-Car-style, one-day show.

The thing about Lights on the big ovals is this: If we’re tip-toeing that thrilling/scary line in the IndyCars, then the Lights field is stomping full-on into “scary” territory. You can tell most of these drivers haven’t had a “big one” yet, but at this rate, it’s only a matter of time for several of them…

In a mild upset, USAC racer Brandon Wagner had a nice qualifying run to take the Lights pole, with Saavedra second. Where was Hildebrand? Thirteenth, with fuel pressure issues that also affected several other cars … at least four in all, all of them on different teams. Hmmm, junk in the fuel, clogging up the filters, perhaps? This might get interesting, after all.

At the green, Wagner got swallowed up and passed by several cars. His day got worse when he made contact with Pippa Mann while completing Lap 5, losing his right-front wing. That contact caused Mann to spin at Turn 1, which caused Rodrigo Barbosa to spin, as well. Ana Beatriz was lucky to pass the spinning Mann without making contact with the outside wall. Wagner was able to replace his damaged wing, but eventually dropped out with handling issues. This was just the start of the silliness.

Mike Potekhen made contact with Daniel Herrington on the back stretch on Lap 32. Both cars continued, but Potekhen was unable to keep his car in the bottom groove and drifted up, making contact first with Beatriz, and then, with James Hinchcliffe. All three cars ended up in the wall and out of the race. The wreck also meant that Hildebrand had clinched the title – afterwards, there were only 12 cars running, and JR was free to go for the win.

The field went back to green on Lap 41, and from there, no one was able to get past Herrington, despite some breathtaking moves in the field. This was a crazy race, with pretty much the entire field running together throughout. James Davison finished second, while Andrew Prendeville made a late charge to finish third. Wade Cunningham recovered from a late drop in the pack to finish fourth, while Hildebrand clinched a well-earned championship with fifth.

Here’s an equally quick IndyCar race recap: Dixon had stretched out a big lead over Briscoe after the final round of pit stops, but it was erased in a Lap 184 crash by Helio Castroneves, who hit the Turn 4 fence with vigor following a right-front suspension (pushrod?) failure.

With just a dozen or so laps remaining, the final run to the checkers was “big casino” (i.e. a crapshoot), complete with clean passes, some not-so-clean passes, check-ups, slide jobs and even a set of teammates (or two) carving one-another up in the mass scrum to the finish.

Briscoe repeated his Kentucky performance, this time eking out a narrow, quarter-of-a-car-length victory over a nonplussed Dixon. For only the second time this season, the points leader coming INTO a race weekend remained the points leader AFTER the event.

Moraes completed the podium and emotionally dedicated the run to his late father. The third-place effort was his best career IndyCar finish.

In addition to Castroneves, Mutoh also had a hard impact mid-race, when an apparent toe-link failure turned him right into the wall in a crash similar to Kanaan’s impact at Indy. Like Helio, Hideki was okay, too.

Even though the team is showing improvement, in general, it was not a great night for AGR. Marco Andretti was their highest finisher, 11th despite causing the second caution of the night when he brushed the wall on Lap 108. Pit strategies backfired on Danica and TK.

Panther Racing had another forgettable evening, as Dan Wheldon broke a half-shaft exiting his pit during the first caution. This was the kind of track that Panther hired Wheldon to do well at, yet once again, the team wasn't a factor.

Meanwhile, NHL continued its upward march, with both cars finishing among the top 10. Rahal finished fifth and looked for a while like he might have something for the leaders, but lost out in the final lap free-for-all. Teammate Servia might have finished even better than seventh if he hadn't made a mistake on his last pit stop that cost him time. At this rate, we MIGHT have a “Big 3” again next year, but with NHL replacing AGR as the third member of the clique.

Semi-regular Tomas Scheckter and Justin Wilson also looked good at Chicagoland, perhaps the best the Coyne team has looked on a big oval to date. Ed Carpenter also looked really fast early -- from 12th at the start to sixth by Lap 5 -- but he was another guy to get shuffled back after the last caution.

The usual final notes:

  • We’re still awaiting final word on the Brazil event location. The latest now has Rio de Janeiro as the leading candidate, ahead of the northern resort town of Salvador. I just want to see something – anything – formally announced.
  • Likewise, regarding the issue of a series title sponsor: The League claims to have two potential candidates lined up. It’d be nice to close the deal on one or the other – soon. It’d be a great way to end the season on a positive note.
  • Forget about Milwaukee for 2010, so we’re just about out of short ovals for now. Only Iowa is left, and it’s so high-banked that you don’t see the cars slide around like they did at Milwaukee and Richmond. And that’s a shame. We need Milwaukee and tracks like it (Phoenix, Richmond, New Hampshire) to truly have a diverse schedule.
  • Injury updates: Both Will Power and Nelson Philippe continue to recover nicely. Vitor Meira is just about ready to go (update – he tested at Indy on Oct. 2), but won’t run Homestead now. The Foyt team doesn’t have the manpower or equipment to run a second car in the event. All should be back, either full- or part-time, in 2010.
  • The Versus – DirecTV squabble continues, even into the start of the NHL season, where Versus is the primary carrier. What may finally settle it? Well, there is a rumor making the TV industry rounds that Versus’ parent company, Comcast, is about to purchase a controlling interest in NBC from General Electric. That might shift the balance of power in this pxxxing contest.

-- Dan Layton

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