HPD Blog

Friday, November 13, 2009

Paddock Report: Homestead season finale and a look ahead to the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series

It’s been a couple of weeks since the IndyCar Series wrapped up with Dario Franchitti’s race win and championship, but the typical off-season November/December doldrums have yet to kick in. Instead, there’s been a lot going on, highlighted by the long-anticipated announcement of IZOD as the new series title sponsor in a multimillion-dollar, multi-year, deal.

But first, how ‘bout a recap of Homestead, a.k.a. “How Dario Beat The Odds, Snookered His Rivals, and Claimed His Second Semi-Consecutive Crown”?

It began during the race’s opening stint. After starting on the pole, Franchitti soon found out that both teammate Scott Dixon and Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe – Dario’s sole remaining rivals for the 2009 IndyCar championship – had better setups for race day. Not sure what it was; wing angles, tire pressures, but something wasn’t working quite as well for the red #10 as it was for his fellow contenders.

Mind you, all three were still head-and-shoulders above the rest of the 23-car starting field, pulling away from Marco Andretti, et al, from Lap 1 onward. It was almost too good to be true; the three remaining championship contenders battling for the race win and title.

Midway through the first fuel run, Dario realized that he didn’t have enough outright speed to go for the win. He’d spent a half-dozen laps running side-by-side with Dixon, then another 20 or so running behind both ‘Dixie’ and Briscoe. By the time the first round of pit stops approached, Dario, team boss Chip Ganassi and race engineer Chris Simmons had made the tough call to pull the trigger on what they euphemistically called their “alternative” strategy, i.e. … ‘save fuel at all costs.’ Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?

IF Dario ran lean and could make pit stops at 50-lap intervals, he could do the race on three stops. Dixon and Briscoe would need to make four, IF there were no yellows. A single yellow, at any point up until about Lap 190 or so, and either Dixon or Briscoe would be your 2009 champion.

The problem for Franchitti & Co.: in the entire history of the Indy Racing League, there had NEVER been a race run without at least one full-course caution. Until Homestead, 2009.

By mid-race, it was apparent that Briscoe was the fastest of the quick three. But he also was getting the worst initial fuel mileage, pitting for the first time on Lap 45. His second stint was a bit better, and he didn’t need to pit again until Lap 95. Briscoe made his third stop on Lap 143. Ryan did everything he could, grabbing the bonus points for leading the most laps and holding amazing, l-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong powerslides coming out of Turn 4 lap after lap, ending just inches from the wall nearly every time. The guy was driving the race of his life. But it all went for naught, as the track stayed “clean and green” and Briscoe had to make a fourth and final stop for fuel on Lap 193.

Dixon was in slightly better shape early in the race, but then had to turn the wick up in a vain attempt to keep Briscoe away from the two points for most laps led. As a result, he had to make his final ‘splash n’ go’ one lap prior to Briscoe. When both were done, Dario went from being ALMOST one lap down to instead holding a comfortable, 10-second lead.

Game. Set. Match.

It wasn’t a grip-the-edge-of-your-seat, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, side-by-side for lap-after-lap-type race, but it was terribly interesting strategically. Franchitti and his guys REALLY rolled the dice and played some very long odds. If you had asked me prior to the start if the race would go yellow-free, I would’ve said no way. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

And how close was Dario on fuel? He ran out while trying to celebrate with donuts and a reverse victory lap. Technically, it was his second consecutive IndyCar title, following his abortive year in NASCAR in ’08.

It also marked 10 years since his CART title fight went down to a tie-breaker with Juan Montoya at the season-closing California Speedway race – the same event where we lost Greg Moore. Props to Dario for remembering and speaking about his good friend after this year’s victory.

Race trivia and other bits that don’t fit anywhere else:

  • It was HOT at Homestead. I’m talking Kansas-in-July, with-tons-of-humidity hot.

  • At 36, Dario became the oldest champion in IndyCar Series history. Hmmm, he still looks like a punk kid to me….

  • It was another great year for the IndyCar teams at HPD and Ilmor. We had only one in-race failure all year, and that was due to a chafed alternator wire on Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car at Infineon. When you think about all the miles and abuse these engines take, that’s an incredible record of reliability. Take a bow, folks.

  • What was up with all the suspension-failure crashes at Penske this year (there were at least three, and I think I may be forgetting one or two)? The latest befell Helio’s car in practice at Homestead, as the left-rear corner collapsed, putting him into the fence – hard. Are they running the car so that they’re shock-loading a wishbone or pushrod? Or is it something else? Either way, it’s something that needs to be fixed for 2010, obviously.

  • Shameless plug to keep you reading: There were a couple of announcements at Homestead regarding new programs for 2010, and a couple of more have followed since then. They’ll follow later in this blog.

  • Did I mention it was bloody HOT at Homestead????

IZOD Signs On!

Biggest and best news of the off-season has been the long-expected and very welcome news that IZOD has signed on as a multi-year, multi-million dollar title sponsor. It’s been a long courtship (starting back in 2008), but it looks like that will pay big dividends starting next year.

This year, the clothing maker spent a reported $6 million in the series, with about a third of that going to keeping Ryan Hunter-Reay on the track with Vision, and later A.J. Foyt, Racing. The rest went into sorely-needed marketing and promotional work, including TV commercials, billboards, magazine ads and the like.

For 2010, that investment will more than double, with everyone getting a taste. The series will get a large lump sum each year; RHR will get enough to move “upmarket,” from Foyt to about-to-be-renamed Andretti Green Racing; full-time teams will get increased financial support; and there will be increased advertising and marketing activation for the series and drivers. The total is expected to be in the neighborhood of $10 million annually. In the immortal words of Pete-the-coach-driver: “It’s all good”.

A Look Ahead to 2010

Since it’s never too early to gossip and speculate, here’s my initial look at the field we’ll be seeing in 2010, ranked from the top of the food chain on down:

Target Chip Ganassi Racing: Standing pat with Franchitti and Dixon. Ten wins and the championship says it all. Why mess with success?

Team Penske/Penske Racing: Holds with Briscoe and Castroneves. Meanwhile, expect a third full-time car for Will Power entered under the separate-but-equal banner of Penske Racing, with Verizon as the likely sponsor. This might just be enough to tip the scales in their direction.

“Michael Andretti Racing”: a.k.a. AGR minus Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, who have left to focus their efforts on race promotion. Tony Kanaan will be back, seeking to rebound from a simply disastrous 2009; as will Danica Patrick (with a new three-year deal in hand, regardless of any NASCAR stuff she’ll have going on the side) and Marco Andretti. Hideki Mutoh is gone to Newman Haas Lanigan (see below), but in his place comes Ryan Hunter-Reay, armed with the aforementioned IZOD money.

Newman Haas Lanigan: Appears to be growing to three cars next year. Graham Rahal is expected back (although not signed yet), and Alex Lloyd appears to be bringing sponsorship from HER energy drink for the second seat. The third is a bit of a surprise, but since it’s already out on the “interweb”, it looks like Hideki Mutoh will be headed here from AGR. Hey, he already lives in Chicago, anyway…

Dale Coyne Racing: Ever thought you’d see the day when Coyne was ranked this high? Well, this was the only team to win this year outside of Ganassi and Penske. Justin Wilson would like to improve his lot in life (he really DID drive for “hot dogs and peanuts” this year) so he should be back at even a halfway-decent salary. Coyne also would like to add a second car to his steadily improving operation, but that depends on $$$. If the long-mooted Brazilian race actually does come off, maybe Bruno Junqueira could return with home-country support….

KV Racing Technology: Again, he’s not yet re-signed, but it looks like Mario Moraes will be returning. Mario had great speed all year long, but there were certain, errr, lapses in judgement from time to time. Still, as the old racing saying goes, “you can teach smart, but you can’t teach fast” and Mario has the speed. The team definitely wants to run two cars full-time. Paul Tracy has enough support for five to seven races or so, but can they find the rest? There are other drivers floating around with partial sponsorship deals (see below), so we’ll have to see what develops here.

Luczo Dragon Racing: For IndyCar Rookie of the Year winner Raphael Matos, see “Mario Moraes” above. Unlike Mario, “Rafa” most assuredly does not come from money (he moved to the US six years ago with all of $50 to his name …), but he has the speed and flash of Moraes. And, like his fellow Brazilian, he had several moments of brain fade in ’09 (see “Danica Patrick at St. Pete” and “Vitor Meira at Indy”) but he’s really, really fast. He should be back.

Vision Racing: On occasion (Kentucky), Ed Carpenter could be as quick as anyone on the ovals. On road courses … well … But Vision and Carpenter showed marked improvement on the left-turn-only circuits this year. The key now for Tony George’s team is to build on that base. For that, it needs more sponsorship. Indeed, it needs increased support just to guarantee it can run the full schedule next year. Hopefully, they’ll find it.

Panther Racing: Here’s a team you would normally expect to be ranked near the top of this table. Not after the 2009 they had. It’s very safe to say that both the team and new recruit Dan Wheldon were deeply disappointed. Most of the time they simply weren’t quick enough, and on the days they WERE fast (Indy, Chicago, etc), something always happened to knock them out of the picture. Despite all that, Dan will be back with the “Panther Pack” for 2010, but this team needs to turn things around fast.

Dreyer & Reinbold: Having finally stopped throwing his car at various immovable objects over the final quarter of the season, Mike Conway is expected back next year. As for a second (or even third) car, there are several possibilities, including Milka Duno, Tomas Scheckter, E.J. Viso and even Oriol Servia, among many others. I doubt if anything will be resolved here before January – or later.

A.J. Foyt Racing: Vitor’s back, and A.J.’s got him. Meira’s healed up and raring to go, but Foyt’s team still has a long way to go to match the abilities of Panther or Rahal, where Meira has previously run. Still, it’s a paid drive, and “Vic Myers” is grateful for that – as well as for A.J. and Larry’s loyalty during his recovery from the back injuries he sustained at Indy.

HVM Racing: Underperformed by its standards last year, and E.J. Viso has left the building as a result. E.J. has some sponsorship, so he should land somewhere. Meanwhile, Robert Doornbos was equally disenchanted with Hewman Haas Lanigan by mid-’09, so he rejoined his former Champ Car team, where they’ve won in the past. They were unable to rediscover the magic over the last six races, but will try again next year. Second driver wanted. Apply within. Bring $$$.

Fazzt: Guess what, I’ve ranked this new team above regular ’09 entrants Conquest Racing and Team 3G. Why? Because they appear to have decent funding, Alex Tagliani is still one fast (spelled right this time) driver, and Team Manager Rob Edwards has been around a long time and will find good people to fill out the squad. Plans are for a full year, with a second car at Indy and the Canadian rounds (for someone like Canadian Indy Lights driver James Hinchcliff, perhaps?).

Team 3G: Stanton Barrett is a really nice guy, the kind of guy you wish good things for. But can he run at this level? The jury is still out. Meanwhile both Jaques Lazier and Richard Antinucci showed they were better than the team when they drove the #98 car.

Finally, there’s Conquest Racing: A once decent operation that has, unfortunately, been spiraling downhill these last few years (including its tenure in both CART and IndyCar). Tagliani bolted after Edmonton, while Nelson Philippe came onboard at Infineon, only to suffer season-ending injuries in the very first practice session. Philippe may return in 2010, but not necessarily with Eric Bachelart’s team.

Sarah Fisher Racing: Ran a half-dozen races in 2009, but will be adding events and an occasional second car next year. Sarah is scheduled to race nine times, including the road courses at St. Pete and Mid-Ohio. After a year away, former Indy Lights champ Jay Howard is set for at least four races in a second car. This is a team that is improving steadily.

Taken all together, that gives us 22-24 likely full-time entries for 2010. Pretty encouraging, all things considered. Then there are:

Other Possibilities

Polestar Racing: A veteran Atlantic team run by Jim and Pam Griffith, who were at Homestead with a sponsor in tow, and making plans to step up with a single-car, full-time effort next year. More news here as it develops.

Newman Wachs Racing: The championship-winning Atlantic team this year, with former F. Mazda champ John Edwards. Has some funding, and is looking to move up to IndyCar in partnership with an existing team (KV?, DRR?). There’s more to come here, too.

de Ferran Motorsports: This ALMS team is also trying to move into IndyCars. But, along with Walker Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing, is still lacking the budget to run. Still, hope springs eternal….

Then, there are the perennial “Indy only” entries, such as Hemelgarn and Sam Schmidt. They’ll be back, too, along with “Indy only” drivers like Davey Hamilton and John Andretti.

On the Outside Looking In

It’s an unfortunate fact of IndyCar life, but there are always more talented, proven drivers out there than rides available. There are also numerous ”Young Turks” hoping to move up from Atlantic, Lights, GP2 etc.

Here’s a partial rundown of the veterans: Bruno Junqueira, E.J. Viso, Buddy Rice, Oriol Servia, Nelson Philippe, A.J. Foyt IV, Buddy Lazier, Jaques Lazier, Dan Clarke and Darren Manning.

Some potential new kids on the block: Indy Lights champ JR Hildebrand, Atlantic champ John Edwards, multiple ALMS race-winner Simon Pagenaud, James “Hinchtown” Hinchcliff, Jonathan Summerton and even P.J. Chesson.

That’s a wrap for now. More later as the countdown to the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series continues.

-- Dan Layton

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