HPD Blog

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Racing Times: Indy Week 2

Yep, one week down and we're all still here. Welcome to Week 2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the weather's still changeable (on an almost hourly basis); there are still as many days with no track activity as there are days with cars on the track; the teams that can usually least afford problems have them; and from whence the Versus network continues to pleasantly surprise me with quality racing television.

Second verse, same as the first...

First and most important, Mike Conway was bounced out of Methodist Hospital after an overnight stay for bruised lungs and a concussion ("We ran a brain scan, found no brains. So yep, he's a race-car driver"). But, as per IndyCar SOP, he wouldn't be allowed to drive again until the following Friday.

Also, in Dreyer & Reinbold's "Land of the Crashed," the John Andretti chassis was repaired at Aerodyne early in the week, and was ready to go once practice resumed on Thursday.

Finally, as expected, Oriol Servia was named to drive the retro-looking Rahal Letterman Racing "DAFCA Special," replete in the late '60s-style dark blue-and-white paint scheme made famous by Dan Gurney's All-American Racers operation. This gave us 34 driver/car combinations, with a couple more expected by the weekend.

The TBAs that were in play were the second Conquest car (which actually needed an entire LR corner and various other bits to become functional), the second Dale Coyne car (which was as complete and ready to go as any Coyne car is the day before a race weekend), and the #48 Foyt Racing third car (which needed gearbox and suspension components to be ready).

Nothing that a few $$$ couldn't solve, right?

And don't forget that a couple of crashes could dramatically change the car-count situation, because time during the second qualifying weekend would be short to make repairs.

Thursday & Friday - Final Practice Days

Wednesday night saw a LOT of rain in the Indianapolis area, with the Speedway getting its fair share, so we awoke to a "green" track once again, washed clean of any grip-increasing rubber. However, the sun was out Thursday morning, and we got going after only a slight delay.

The storms did cause some damage around the track. The Foyt Racing pit cart was knocked over, and it took several crewmen (and a floor jack) to get it righted. The Vision Racing pit equipment also sustained cosmetic damage. Those two pit boxes are near the gap in the stands between Tower Terrace and the Pagoda, so perhaps that was a location where the wind gusts had more of an impact.

Over in the hospitality area, the awning was torn off the Panther Racing compound, leaving most of its support poles bent. But Panther quickly got another awning system from its shop and was up and running in time to serve lunch.

Meanwhile, just as AGR did for Tony Kanaan a week earlier, the Vision Racing team rolled out the 21T car for Ryan Hunter-Reay, as it appeared they had given up on getting speed out of the primary car. We would see if that helped, or if - like at the April race in Kansas - the problems on that side of the Vision garage went a bit deeper.

Justin Wilson ran the 18T car Thursday, shaking it down in advance of the announcement that Tomas Scheckter would drive it as #19 for the rest of the month.

Despite the limited number of rides available this year, there were a number of drivers walking around, lobbying and hoping. Dan Clarke was in the Foyt garage with his helmet this morning, joining the ranks of Roger Yasukawa, Jaques Lazier and Bruno Junqueira (the three most visible); plus longer-shots like Jeff Simmons, P.J. Chesson, Alex Barron, Thiago Medeiros and Phil Giebler.

Darren Manning gave up after last weekend and headed to Laguna Seca for a Grand-Am ride, while Buddy Rice never appeared at all - a move that may have cost him a shot at the second Conquest ride.

Meanwhile, Tomas spent a very large part of the afternoon sitting rather contentedly in the Coyne Racing pit box checking his Blackberry, while Wilson got the 18T into the 220+ range. Cat, meet canary.

Ed Carpenter took a turn in the #21T car, shaking it down before handing it over to Ryan Hunter-Reay, who got it up to 218.8 in just four laps, but then headed back to the garage. Still. Not. Happy.

Robert Doornbos was also on track in the repaired #06T car, and the #06 primary had also returned to the garage, as well.

Doornbos was expected to turn in a reasonably fast qualifying lap on Saturday. Why? Pit selection, baby. Everywhere else the IndyCar Series goes, pits are selected based on the points standings, and teams have to decide at the start of the year if they want to pit together (based on the average of a team's points) or pit apart (based on each car's points).

But at Indy, pit selection is based on qualifying speed, and the criterion for team's wishing to pit their cars together is the average speed for that team's cars. So, if Graham Rahal was fourth-quick and Robert Doornbos was eighth-quick, Newman/Haas/Lanigan would pick sixth, and so on.

We also said goodbye to "Frankencar," as the #27T/11T had a fresh wrap on it and was now in full 7-Eleven colors. TK and all of the AGR guys (along with all qualified teams) spent Thursday, Friday and mid-day portions of the weekend working on race setups, full-tank runs, drafting, etc.

With regard to the unqualified cars, as expected, Townsend Bell and Oriol Servia were quickly up to speed, with Bell over 220 and Servia not far from it. They would end Thursday the quickest. Buddy Lazier, however, had yet to crest 218.

Some of these teams (Hemelgarn, 3G, DRR) were going to need to make a big step up, or go home on Sunday.

Speaking of DRR, Davey Hamilton joined the "shakedown crew," taking a turn in the repaired car of Mike Conway, with Conway watching from pit lane.

In one nice change from last week, the track stayed green and crash-free for almost the entire day.

Hot rumor du jour for Friday: Marty Roth will be selling his IndyCar team cars and equipment to de Ferran Motorsports, and they'll be running at Milwaukee with Takuma Sato behind the wheel. Yeah. Making your IndyCar debut at the ancient bull ring that is Milwaukee makes ALL kinds of sense. Riiiiiiiight. Hey, I don't make this stuff up, I just pass it along...

Most of Friday was a repeat of Thursday. A lot of green-flag action as struggling teams threw "everything but the kitchen sink" setups at their cars in the search for speed, and the qualified teams worked ahead for Race Day. The rich get richer.

We did end up seeing a very nice race simulation at the end of practice, with Helio Castroneves, Alex Lloyd, Mario Moraes, Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, Graham Rahal, Raphael Matos, and Dario Franchitti running in a large pack. Ryan Briscoe got in on the fun after awhile as well. There was even a bit of three-wide up the front straight and dive-bomb passing into Turn 1. Cool.

The Penske cars continued to set the pace, and the smart money has to be on Helio and Briscoe in particular, but KV Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing were showing good speed, in all conditions, as well. Don't forget Graham Rahal, either. Andretti Green Racing was, at least, honest in telling the media that they're struggling, and Wheldon also hadn't been quite as strong since his first weekend shunt, either.

The track went yellow at 5:30 p.m. for one of the strangest debris cautions ever seen at the 'ole Brickyard - specifically, some of the bricks in the Yard of Bricks came loose as the mortar failed. A piece of brick came right up through the floor of Mario Moraes' car! It quickly became apparent that the issue couldn't be fixed quickly, and practice was checkered at 5:45 pm.

Final Qualifying - Saturday and Sunday

Saturday dawned cloudy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after another round of overnight storms. The rain was expected to move out later in the morning, with strong winds remaining. And instead of the previous weekend's concert tribute to the urban '70s (George Clinton & P-Funk), the band du jour was the Plain White Ts, triggering the expectation of seeing a lot of junior-high-school kids in the crowd.

In a bit of a surprise - as primary car #34 for Alex Tagliani wasn't in the show yet - Conquest added a second entry for Bruno Junqueira. That made the #36 car the 36th and final driver/car combination for this year's 500.

Backing for the deal came from All Sport Energy Drink and Big Red, support that was originally intended for Buddy Rice. But there was some hiccup in that deal, so the agents headed it Bruno's way.

The deal came together late Friday night, leaving the crew a single late night to actually assemble a car, since the #36 was stripped of parts to fix the #34 that Tagliani crashed a week earlier.

As of Saturday morning, the #36 car was not fully together, but additional crew (hired overnight, primarily from Roth Racing) were working in the Conquest garage wearing new hard cards and fresh uniforms, reassembling the car. With a little bit of luck, they'd have it ready to go before the end of the day.

Tomas Scheckter's Mona Vie car had a new "paint job" - actually a "wrap" of cut-to-fit contact paper. The formerly black-and-red car was now black and blue, similar to the Danica Patrick "Motorola" colors.

Also, Azul Tequila has been announced as a new team sponsor for KV Racing. It will be on the KV Racing cars, a deal that was bound to make team co-owner Jimmy Vasser happy on several levels!!!

The Firestone timing stand in pit lane has become known as the "hot-dog stand" - cause it looks like one. And Saturday, it actually had a rack of Firestone-branded hot dogs on display - no doubt liberated from some local 7-Eleven in the middle of the night after they'd gotten rock solid. Some of them even say "Jack Arute" on them, so I'm sure they got some air time during the Versus qualifying broadcast.

Morning practice was uneventful - until the rain returned and delayed the start of qualifying for an hour or so.

Once we went green, the field was filled, led by "Bobby D" Doornbos at 221.692 mph. But the quickest guys of the day were in safely, with well-handling cars. It was those at the back of the provisional grid, struggling to save their lives in every corner, that were more "interesting" to watch.

For example, John Andretti completed one lap at 215.538 before waving off his first attempt. Andretti said the car "just plowed off of Turn 2" - meaning it was pushing badly - despite his attempts at fixing it. And it was, visibly sliding up toward the fence on the TV monitors.

Buddy Lazier was another, making an initial run of just 216 and change as his Hemelgarn car pushed up the hill in Turns 1-2 and was VERY tail-happy in Turns 3-4. Maybe the wind, maybe setup-probably both.

And (as usual), Milka Duno had a good first lap at 219.626, but then ran wide at Turn 1 and brushed the wall. She "waved herself off" on that run and pitted without waiting for the crew to call her in.

Then there was the ongoing saga of Ryan Hunter-Reay. Coached over the radio throughout his run, being told to "stick with it and work the rear bars," Hunter-Reay was still frustrated, telling the team that he still doesn't know where the speed is. When asked how the car felt, his curt reply was, "It's horrible."

Late in the day, the re-runs started with Andretti, who qualified at 219.4. Teammate Mike Conway was next and ran a 220.124. With about 15 minutes to go, Alex Tagliani followed and ran for an average of 220.553. He also had a moment at Turn 1 on his second lap where he nearly brushed the wall on the exit. His run filled the field and left Lazier on the bubble. Let the bumping begin!

As so it did, as Milka bumped Lazier with an average of 218.040. That for sure would not make it through Sunday.

With HVM's Nelson Phillipe "on the bubble," Stanton Barrett was the last driver out, and looked as though he would have enough speed after his first three laps were run at 218.104, 218.163, and 218.016. However, the last lap - 217.708 - dragged the average down to 217.998, meaning Barrett missed qualifying by two-hundredths of a second. Even so, it didn't really matter, as neither of the drivers in the 218s were expected to survive Sunday's final qualifying.

The weather conditions on Sunday were nearly perfect. Cool (in the '60s), very little wind. Practice was again uneventful, and it looked like everyone got the crashing out of their system during the previous week. Bruno Junqueira made his first appearance for Conquest and took just a half-dozen laps to run over 220 mph, then pitted after just two more laps, saying they just needed to trim the car out and they'd be ready to qualify.

When final qualifying got underway at noon, two things soon became apparent: 1) All racers are paranoid, and 2) Darwin rules: We're all willing to "eat our own young" to get into the show.

Bump Day began with withdrawals from both previous 218 mph qualifiers, as Philippe and Duno re-qualified significantly faster at 220.7 and 221.106, respectively. John Andretti was now on the bubble with an average of 219.442. Under Saturday's conditions, that might have been a safe number, but not today, not with Bruno J. about to run.

And sure enough, after just 15 total laps for the month, Junqueira bumped Andretti with an average of 221.115, fastest of the day to that point. So, now we had Andretti, Lazier and Barrett on the outside, looking in.

IF Andretti, who had struggled all month, was part of a single-car team, the field might just have been set with Bruno's run. But JA is part of the four-car Dreyer & Reinbold group, where Davey Hamilton found a setup that worked early in the month and easily qualified on the first weekend (the only DRR car to do so).

During the final qualifying weekend, Hamilton helped both Conway and Duno with setups and some driving tips, and they soon appeared to be safely in the field. As Andretti's car headed back to the garage area for more changes, others near the back of the field started getting nervous. The final hour (or so) would make for a VERY interesting Bump Day!

Hunter-Reay went first and raised his average from 219.5 to 220.4. Would that be enough? It left E.J. Viso on the bubble with an average of 219.971.

John Andretti emerged from the garage area. The crew had duplicated Hamilton's setup onto Andretti's car - the same trick that helped Mike Conway into the field earlier. Andretti was soon lapping at just around 220 mph in practice.

Buddy Lazier was reporting a car that was pushing in the middle of the corner. Lazier was lapping in the high 218s, with one lap at 219. The car simply didn't have enough grip. Barrett was also still a couple of mph off the pace.

With 90 minutes to go, E.J. Viso withdrew his 219.9 from Saturday and "bumped himself" to re-qualify at 221.164. See what I mean about "eating their own young"? That put Scheckter on the bubble at 220.212.

Soooo, the feeding frenzy continued. Scheckter headed back toward the track, and Alex Tagliani also came back out to pit lane from the garage area.

Scheckter withdrew his previous 220 effort at 5:35 p.m. and went out to re-qualify, running 221.496, the fastest average of the day. NOW Ryan Hunter-Reay was on the bubble, at 220.413.

John Andretti was next and ran laps at 220.619, 220.337, 220.077, and 220.096 for an average of 220.282, just not fast enough. That's was his second attempt of the day, leaving him with one.

Conquest had a chance (two of them, actually) to withdraw Tagliani's Saturday run of 220.5, but pulled him out of line each time at the last minute. Team owner Eric Bachelart would come to regret those decisions.

Buddy Lazier was next and ran a lap at 218.526 before waving off.

Stanton Barrett followed and ran a lap at 218.774 before waving off.

John Andretti went out again, and on his final run of the day, bumped Ryan Hunter-Reay with an average of 221.316

The, entering the track with less than a minute to spare, Hunter-Reay was the day's last qualifier, running laps of 220.949, 220.828, 220.323, and 220.290 to bump Alex Tagliani with an average of 220.597.

Wow.

But we're not yet done. At around 11 p.m. Sunday night I received a text message - Bruno got the "thanks for putting yourself on the line, you get the boot" award and Tags got back into the field, as Conquest switched drivers in its qualified car. As the sole full-time driver for Conquest, Tagliani would take over Junqueira's #36 car and start from the rear of the field.

Racing's just like real life, only more so: It costs too much and it ain't fair.

What to Watch on Raceday

I'm a little hesitant to write this last section, since my Bump Day predictions were SO far off, but here goes:

Right now, this is Penske's race to lose. All three Penske cars, and in particular Castroneves and Briscoe, have been quick all month, in all weather conditions. This is the safest bet you can make.

After Penske, the Ganassi duo of Dixon and Franchitti are just the barest tick of the watch behind. Depending on the flow of the race, either could easily be in a position to win on Sunday.

Next up are the KV Racing gang of three (Moraes, Tracy and Townsend Bell) and Graham Rahal for Newman Haas Lanigan. The KV guys, in particular Moraes in their only "full-month" entry, have been quick regardless of track conditions, just like Penske. KV's chief engineer, John Dick, certainly knows his way around this place.

My only concern for Moraes is that he prefers a very high line. That's fine in practice, and even in qualifying. But what's he gonna do in the race once the rubber marbles start building up on the outside? T. Bell is certainly quick, but can be inconsistent. My money here (and I think a great outside bet) is PT. He's tan, rested and ready. And he still remembers 2002...

Rahal? He's young and hungry. The team is certainly capable. But Graham does seem to have an unfortunate habit of sticking it in the fence on ovals. If he can avoid mistakes, he'll be there or thereabouts come Lap 199.

What about AGR? Frankly, they've been struggling this month. But you can't count ANY of that quartet out on Race Day. TK remains the complete racer, both Marco and Danica have always been quick here on Race Day, and Mutoh is getting better all the time.

Wheldon and Panther appear to have "dialed themselves out" as the month has progressed. Unless they can somehow turn things around on Carb Day, I don't see them contending this year. Lloyd, Matos and Justin Wilson are probably not quite there; Servia COULD surprise as a dark horse, but I really don't see anyone else contending.

Feel free to send me a crow sandwich on Monday, May 25...

Racing Times: Indy Week 1

Welcome to Indianapolis: Where six days of practice can stretch out over two weeks of your life. Where sponsorship programs can magically appear "overnight" - and collapse equally quickly. Where careers can be made - and broken at a place called Turn 1. Where exists more than 90 years of history and tradition (and silly rules) - but where something new and different happens every day.

As Mark Knopfler sings, "If it's May, then we're in Indianapolis." So let's recap the first week of practice and qualifying.

Practice Days Tuesday-Friday

Okay, I've gotta get this out of the way right now, before we go any further: Pink Lloyd...

Thank you. Anyone who doesn't know what I'm talking about can just google "Alex Lloyd+Indy 500" or go to the www.samschmidtmotorsports.com Web site.

Tuesday's "Rookie Orientation Practice" was a low-key affair that featured only the six Indy rookies, plus three veterans taking "refreshers."

Paul Tracy wasted no time in getting up to speed; got to 223.089 mph for KV racing, then called it a day to save tires and engine mileage. Scott Sharp's Panther entry was next up in his "refresher," at 221.878.

Robert Doornbos was third overall and fastest rookie at 221.735. Raphael Matos, Alex Tagliani (hard to believe, but he's an Indy "rookie") and Mike Conway finished all four phases of their rookie orientation.

The weather (ALWAYS a topic of conversation at Indy) was just about perfect, mostly sunny and mild. The forecast for the rest of the week, however, was a bit more problematical...

So, naturally, it rained during Wednesday's official "Opening Day." With rain continuing into the afternoon, the rest of the day was cancelled just before 3 p.m. with little accomplished.

For me, the highlight of the day was catching up with Tony Kanaan for the first time since Kansas. Sure enough, as a result of his lost "bet" with Dario, he's already looking a little furry. He also has a "Chia TK" in the AGR garage, courtesy of Dave Furst at Channel 6 (the local ABC affiliate) and the race is on to see who gets fuzzier, faster.

Fortunately, Thursday was a great day for motor racing, and it was time to get down to business as 29 drivers (out of a possible 31) got some track time. As a result, one of the hardest things to track was whether a driver's impressive lap time was a solo result, or whether he had "help" in creating a draft from one or more cars in front of him.

We also had our first crash of the month as Ryan Hunter-Reay - giving an early indication that this would be an extraordinarily "character-building" Indy for him - looped it exiting Turn 2 and bounced off the outside wall. Not a bad crash as Indy shunts go, but surely an indicator that at least one of the Vision cars was in trouble early.

The Pagoda here at IMS has undergone some changes, with an impressive wrap on the outside of the building commemorating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Speedway.

Meanwhile, outside Turn 2, the former Speedway motel, setting for many a tale that can't be repeated here (just watch the second act of "Winning") was torn down last fall, and has been replaced by a paved parking lot.

On track, something you actually do need to understand are the tire rules for this year: Teams running the entire month get 35 sets for practice, qualifying and race day (and, of that total, AT LEAST 9 sets must be set aside for the 500). Teams on a one-week program get 24 sets. Teams doing ROP get an additional 4 sets, while those doing refreshers get an additional 2 sets.

This is the biggest limiting factor in determining a team's time on the track, as the performance level of this year's tire falls off dramatically after just one heat cycle, regardless of the number of laps. This means that: 1. You could only really determine if a setup change worked on relatively "fresh" tires; and 2. If you're an engineer, every setup change you make better have worked!

While I'm thinking about it, AJ Foyt IV has gone "retro," driving for his family team this year, and sporting the plain "Coyote Orange" helmet just like that worn by his grandfather "back in the day." We would see more unique helmets - and more retro looks - later in the week.

Thursday ended with Marco Andretti quickest at 225.4, but that was definitely a "tow job" (let's see if that makes it all the way to print), followed by Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, as the Penske effort already looks VERY stout this year.

At this point, we had 34 car/driver combinations either announced or expected, although some wouldn't be starting until next week. That's not enough for Brian Barnhart, so I'm sure the "Puppet Master" will make the necessary moves to get one or more driver/car combinations out on track.

For example, Roth Racing is reportedly bringing a ready-to-go car to the track - "all the car needs is an engine" (yeah, RIGHT!). The driver is still TBA, and reportedly as well, the car is available for the right deal with the right driver - and/or for sale.

Meanwhile, in the Hemelgarn garage, the team is already working on Buddy Lazier's second-week entry. To be honest, though, it looks like the car hasn't been touched since last May. Even the pit cart still had 2008 stickers on it.

Which brings us to "Fast Friday," the final day of practice prior to pole qualifying. Doornbos - who had been turning some very impressive lap times to date - probably got a bit too cocky and lost it in 1, giving the outside wall a good pounding. He was okay, but the car was headed back to the NHL shop in suburban Chicago for a rebuild by late afternoon.

THEN Scott Sharp also crashed in Turn 2, causing heavy damage to his Patron car. Sharp lost the car seemingly after exiting Turn 1, then spinning low through Turn 2 before pancaking the wall with the right side of the car, messing it up pretty good, too. But "Sharpie" still has his backup car.

More helmet news: Both Ganassi drivers (Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti) are sporting helmet designs created by young patients from Target House at the St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis. "Dixie" has done this before, but for Dario, it marks the first time he hasn't worn his own "Scot's flag" helmet design since about 1994! Still, it was all for a great cause, and one the Ganassi team has long supported.

Meanwhile, after a strong early start, Tony Kanaan was struggling with his #11 car - and he had no backup, as his other car (driven at St. Pete and Long Beach) was stripped down and shipped out to Aerodyne for repairs when a crack was found in the tub following the Long Beach event.

Back in the garage, the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team was switching to the backup car for Doornbos. This year, teams aren't allowed to touch their backups until they need them, so the crew had to thrash to get the #06T ready. The team made it out for the last 10 minutes of the day and got the car up to the 217s. Now, it was time to go qualify.



Pole Day

Rain overnight gave us a "green" racetrack for pole day. It was also cool, which would be ideal, except for the gusty crosswind blowing west-to-east across the front and back straights.

Oh, and for those coming out just to party and relive the late '70s, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic took to the Coke Zero Stage on Saturday afternoon. Time to get your P-Funk on...

The morning practice began with a bang, as Doornbos had his second wreck in as many days. This time, however, it appeared something may have broken on his backup machine, as the rear end stepped out big time in the chute between Turns 1 & 2. Robert was (again) unhurt, but this car was also narrowed up considerably, instantly making Doornbos a second-weekend qualifier, as the team was out of available cars.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is all the new paint schemes here at Indy. In the most dramatic change, the Panther Racing team has "camouflage" livery on Dan Wheldon's car, as well as on Dan's firesuit and the raceday suits for the crew.

Plus, Danica Patrick's car is now black and orange, reflecting Indy sponsor Boost Mobile, while the Citgo car of Milka Duno has a new and nicer paint scheme.

Nelson Philippe's lime-green livery would probably take the "ugly" award, but for Alex "Pink" Lloyd's Her Energy Drink car which is, obviously, hot pink.

And that brings us to "Frankencar." Tony Kanaan had not been happy with his number 11, struggling to find that last mile an hour or so without the help of a tow. But without a backup, the Andretti Green Racing team put him into a car numbered 11T, one that was actually Hideki Mutoh's backup #27T but with the front wings, nose, airbox, and rear wing. So, you had the Formula Dream graphics package in the center, clashing (quite heavily) with TK's 7-Eleven graphics on either end.

As qualifying got underway, all of the "Big Dogs" went out and laid down initial runs (drivers are allowed three each day, remember). Ryan Briscoe went out around 12:37 p.m. and put his car on the provisional pole, displacing teammate Will Power. But there would be more to come.

After a disappointing first run of 221.272 mph, Ed Carpenter did one of the most honest interviews we have heard in a long time. He said he felt like he should just go home and come back on Sunday, because he didn't know where the Vision Racing team would find the speed to qualify in the top 11 on Pole Day.

Around 2:40 p.m., Dario made a run at the pole. He turned a four-lap average of 224.010 mph, which put him in the middle of the front row, just a tick slower than Ryan Briscoe's 224.131, and the team began to debate whether another run was in order.

Scott Dixon also made a run, putting his car fourth on the grid for the moment. Then, TK has put "Frankencar" in the show (at least at that point with a 222.742 mph lap. That made him 8th, middle of Row Three - until he went to post-qualifying tech and the car came up one pound (yes, 16 ounces) too light. DQ'd for now.

During open practice in the afternoon, Wheldon got caught out by the Turn 2 crosswind, spun and ever-so-lightly backed it into the outside wall - just the left rear wheel and rear wing were toast.

A short time later, it was rookie Nelson Philippe's turn. He came through Turn 1 looking okay, but then the car wiggled, "caught" traction and - since he was already loose - the locked diff turned him right, and into the fence nose-first, then with the right side. Once again, the driver was fine, but the car would need significant repairs.

Around 4 p.m., it came time for two groups to get busy - the Penske and Ganassi boys (reaching for the pole), along with another half-dozen or so seeking to attain "Top 11" first-day qualifying status.

Helio Castroneves was first, withdrawing his initial run and laying down a VERY impressive 224.854 mph average. As it turned out, that was more than enough.

Kanaan brought Frankencar out again just before 5 p.m. and put in a run of 223.612 - safe for the top 11 but no pole (or even front row) threat. Paul Tracy, Hideki Mutoh and Mario Moraes all made multiple runs. Graham Rahal posted a very solid 223.954 to sit on the inside of the second row, while Dixon gave the pole another shot but ended up on Row 2, as well.

Briscoe made another run but remained second, while Franchitti landed on the outside of the front row at 224.010. In the final minutes, Alex Lloyd landed the 11th and final spot for the day, bumping out Mutoh. The last attempt came from Justin Wilson, but the Coyne driver came up short and Pole Day was over.

Qualifying Day 2

Sunday was sunny, but definitely cooler than Pole Day. The 8 a.m. "Front Row Photo Shoot" had two highlights: Helio convincing the assembled photographers to serenade him with "Happy Birthday" (and yes, it really was his birthday). Previously, I never realized that a group of adults this large could sing both off-key AND flat.

Then there was the moment when Helio got to pose with the obligatory "Big Check" pole award and someone shouted out, "Did you pay taxes on that?"

At least he could laugh about it - now.

The question of the day was seeing who would round out positions 11-22. Mutoh, Matos and Tracy were pretty safe bets, but after that...

Before that came the biggest crash of the month, as Mike Conway lost the rear of his Dreyer and Reinbold car shortly after turn-in and backed HARD into the Turn 1 wall. The car then turned and made secondary contact at the right front. Conway was removed from his car on a backboard, and later in the day was admitted to Methodist Hospital with a concussion and bruised lung.

Just a few minutes later, Alex Tagliani likewise made heavy contact in Turn 1, smacking the wall with the back end and then swinging around to clout it with the front. The team would have to rob parts off its other car to fix this one.

A rare mechanical error on the part of Team Penske also threw a scare our way during practice, when an oil-return line fell off Castroneves' backup car, presumably after a crewmember failed to tighten it while switching the engine from the primary.

As a result, Helio spewed oil and smoke all the way up the front straight before coming to a stop exiting Turn 2. The engine lived, but he still got a new one (and an invoice...) as a precaution.

In qualifying, we reached our limit of 11 for the day (making 22 overall) pretty quickly, then the fun began, as the last few members in the field - and the quickest few on the outside looking in - started jockeying for position.

For example, Paul Tracy withdrew his previous run and picked up over a half -mile an hour to reach a safe number of 223.111 mph. After failing tech with a too-wide rear suspension, Vitor Meira re-qualified with an average of 223.054, bumping AJ Foyt IV's 220.355-mph average.

The pressure was on, as anyone capable of running 218 or more tried to get into the show, in anticipation of working on race setup during the following week's practice sessions. Drivers that were struggling - Barrett, Hunter-Reay, Milka, John Andretti - were making bunches of changes and then trying them out on track.

We'd already had two crashes, and now, John Andretti made it three, also losing it in Turn 1 and crashing heavily. On his own race-setup run, Graham Rahal pinched his car down low and JUST BARELY missed Andretti's shredding car. Rahal flattened his own rear tire after locking up, but missed both Andretti and the wall. Some days it's better to be lucky than good...

But that marked two big crashes in one day for Dreyer & Reinbold, a team that - as of then - had only one of its four cars (Davey Hamilton) safely in the field. Up in the Versus TV booth, team co-owner Robbie Buhl was dying the "death of a thousand cuts."

Scott Sharp went out to qualify after the cleanup from Andretti's accident was complete and - adding insult to injury - bumped Andretti from the field with an average of 221.333, but that time left himself "on the bubble."

AJ Foyt IV went out about 30 minutes later and found lots of speed, qualifying at 222.586 mph and bumping Sharp, who was scheduled to run for the Highcroft Acura team in the ensuing weekend's American Le Mans Series event at Miller Motorsports Park and NEEDED to get in the show on the opening weekend.

With the 6 p.m. gun now rapidly approaching, Ryan Hunter-Reay was next up and waved off after three laps when it became apparent his average was not going to be good enough. Then, Alex Tagliani waved off after a lap at 218.

Finally, Sharp was barely able to start his third and final qualifying run, just prior to the gun. Sharp put together laps at 222.165, 222.245, 222.127, and 222.111 to for an average of 222.162 mph to claim a spot in the field.

So, we had two-thirds of the field settled, and the table was set for what was expected to be an interesting final weekend of qualifying.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Racing Times: Kansas Speedway

Paddock Report: Kansas Speedway

Even though I'm an old-school road racer, I've got to admit, it seemed pretty strange to have gotten this far into the '09 IndyCar season without an oval race. Soooo, even though the "cookie cutter" 1.5-mile speed bowls like Kansas are my least favorite of the left-turn only circuits, it WAS still kinda nice to see everyone running around in circles once again.

The biggest change on the ovals this year is that the IRL mandated a single wheelbase for all cars. This is primarily a cost-saving move. Wheelbase length affects both handling and aero, so by requiring teams to use one set of suspension pieces conforming to a set wheelbase length, they don't have to build multiple wishbones, steering arms, half shafts, etc., AND they also don't have to test all those different variations in the wind tunnel, shaker rig, etc.

Oh yeah, and with a tight, two-day schedule featuring a bare minimum of track time prior to qualifying, the Sunday morning warm-up has returned, both here and at Chicagoland later in the season.

Weather would be an issue all weekend long, with high, gusty winds and storms all around. On Saturday afternoon, your basic springtime line of T-storms came roaring through after IndyCar qualifying, with tornados touching down within a few miles of the track and forcing the postponement of the NASCAR Truck race until Monday morning.

In the "welcome addition" department, we had Sarah Fisher running for the first time this season. Sponsor Dollar General was much in evidence, and the team announced it would be running most - if not all - of the bigger-than-a-mile oval races on this year's schedule. Good news.

The weekend got underway with a practice session for rookies and drivers outside the top 10 in the points championship. And yeah, it was strange to see defending series champion Scott Dixon lumped in with this group. But a pair of disastrous (for him) races at St. Pete and Long Beach had Dixie languishing around 17th in the points standings.

After about 30 minutes, the track went green for an "All Skate" full-field practice - the only practice IndyCar teams would get prior to qualifying in this compact, two-day schedule.

Helio Castroneves brought out an early yellow when a sticking fuel buckeye led to a minor fire, from the resulting spray back on the exhaust. But the Penske guys were quickly able to get everything cleaned up and Helio was back on track within a few minutes. That was about it for incidents during the session.

When the checkers flew at the end of practice, the usual suspects were at the front: Dixon, Castroneves, Marco Andretti (all right, a bit of a surprise there), Briscoe and Danica Patrick. With Kanaan 6th and Mutoh 8th, it was apparent that AGR would be on the pace this weekend, and 9th for Sarah Fisher was very encouraging for her small team.

So sorta the "same old, same old." For practice, anyway. But qualifying would be a slightly different story.

Always an engineering-led team (and PROUD of it), Newman Haas Lanigan knew all too well that, when it came to IndyCar racing - as opposed to Champ Car competition - it was lacking a bit last year on the engineering side, especially on the bigger, 1.5-mile ovals. And that knowledge stung, so they went out and did something about it in the off-season, hiring Martin Pare from the Rahal Letterman team and (especially) Mitch Davis from the Ganassi squad.

There were inklings of NHL's oval improvement at Spring Training in Homestead, but some of that was masked by the attention given to the (brief) addition of Milka Duno to the team.

Following qualifying in Kansas, just how far NHL has advanced since the end of last year was apparent to everyone.

After a strong run by "rookie" teammate Robert Doornbos, NHL's Graham Rahal was the last of 22 qualifiers to make a run - and he promptly stole the pole out from under the nose of Long Beach race winner (and early-season points leader) Dario Franchitti. All in all, it's a far cry from the team's oval-track struggles of just a few short months ago.

Dario WOULD have started on the outside of the front row, but he put his left-front wheel below the white line separating the apron from the banking during his run and his time was disallowed as a result. Franchitti would start at the back, along with third-fastest Castroneves, who also got his knuckles wrapped by the "iron hand of justice" (a.k.a. Race Director Brian Barnhart) for the same offense.

That put - wait for it - "Bobby D" Doornbos into P2, for an all-Newman Haas Lanigan front row. Danica and Dixie were now Row 2, followed by Marco and Mario Moraes of KV Racing (another Champ Car team doing GOOD THINGS on a big oval). The top 10 qualifiers represented no fewer than six different teams.

Having "character-building" weekends were Ryan Hunter-Reay in the second Vision car (even an engine swap on Saturday failed to improve things, so obviously, there is some other drag/friction issue with the #21 car), and E.J. Viso, whose weekend started out badly and went steadily downhill from there. Not only were the HVM boys slow, they also had Viso's qualifying run DQ'd for a "technical infringement" found in tech. And so, we all headed to the nearest storm shelter for the night, while houses, witches and young girls named Dorothy (and her little dog, too) went flying past our hotel windows.

In addition to the IndyCar feature, there was an Indy Lights race, also featuring a 22-car field. Well, 22 cars UNLOADED at the start of the weekend; by the end of Sunday, a bunch of them had been reduced to "sliders," as this one was a bit of a crash-fest, or "festival of carbon fiber" as my homeboy "Press Dog" likes to say.

The first crash saw Jesse Mason get sideways in Turn 3/4 on Lap 3, and he then collected Richard Philippe.

Just a couple laps after we got back to green, Ali Jackson got sideways and hit the wall in Turn 4 for his second crash of the weekend (he'd also had a heavy crash in practice Saturday morning). Rodrigo Barbosa slowed to avoid the accident - and was run over by Sergey Mokshantsev. Sergey's car jumped into the air and landed upside down against the wall: a very scary-looking accident. Thankfully, Sergey walked away.

AGR's Sebastian Saavedra got by Wade Cunningham to take the early lead, as the cars up front were wiggling around quite a bit in the wind. Long Beach race winner JR Hildebrand started out in 3rd, but soon faded with a deflating rear tire, leading to an eventual (and race-killing) green-flag pit stop.

Around Lap 33, Pablo Donoso touched James Hinchliffe, and he, too, wound up in the wall, nearly collecting teammate Sean Guthrie. All in all, the Guthrie-Meyer team would trash a total of four cars this weekend. Ouch.

Next, Gustavo Yacaman spun in Turn 4, but he was able to pretty much avoid hitting anything, making only light contact with his rear wing. The final crash of the day happened with 10 laps to go, as Dillon Battistini spun in front of Pippa Mann, collecting her and sending himself to the hospital for a precautionary overnight stay.

After that, and with the pace car being the day's lap leader, race officials mercifully let the laps run out under yellow. I'm sure the pre-race drivers' meeting at Indy next week will be VERY interesting...

Oh yeah, Saavedra kept his nose clean for his first Lights win and the first win of the season for AGR.

Fortunately, the IndyCar race was MUCH cleaner, 'tho there were still a few ruffled feathers at the end.

The first "feather ruffling" came on Lap 15, when Mutoh unexpectedly changed lanes in front of Vitor Meira exiting Turn 4. Meira checked up, and was promptly given a hard goose up the gearbox by a rapidly closing Castroneves.

BTW, have you noticed a trend here? I think every open-wheel incident of the weekend took place in Turns 3-4.

Anyway, the usual superior Penske pitwork ensured that Helio was able to pit for a new nose and other repairs without going off the lead lap, while Meira's day was done due to rear suspension damage.

At the front, Rahal got a good jump to lead early, but Dixon was stalking, and when Graham's car started to go off slightly as his tires wore (and/or the track "rubbered-in"), Dixon was able to take the lead on Lap 8, and would rarely be out of the lead the rest of the day. Dixie put this one in a choke-hold early, and wasn't about to let go.

With everyone calculating the approaching storms on radar against the lap count - and perhaps mindful of all the carnage in the Lights event - the race stayed green until Lap 96, when Rafa Matos brushed the wall in Turn 4 after getting loose and then saving it while trying to go around Moraes. He made it to pit lane, but was finished for the day.

Of the rookie contingent, Doornbos was most impressive all weekend, finishing 12th despite being sent to the rear of the field for running over an air hose on his second stop.

The final caution of the race came out when Franchitti, on one of his patented in-lap flyers, came up (too) fast on the also-pitting Rahal, just as both neared pit-in. Rather than run up the back of Rahal, Franchitti chose to turn hard right and, as soon as his right front tire left the apron and touched the banking, dreaded "wall suck" took over, and in the blink of an eye Dario was up the hill and into the Turn 4 fence.

After the cleanup, the final segment of the race saw Dixon lead, with Helio fairly close but unable to truly mount a charge. Kinda anti-climactic, to be honest, probably due in equal measure to a green, rain-washed track, the wind, and the general nature of the tire/aero combination spec'd by the rules these days.

It general, it was just tough to run up high; there never really was a second groove. That being said, Rahal WAS able to make a couple of passes up high in the late laps on his way to 7th place at the checkered flag. The exception to prove the rule, I guess.

In addition to Ganassi (Dixon) and Penske (Castroneves), AGR had a good day, with Kanaan finishing 3rd and all four cars in the top eight, their best overall day for the team in quite some time.

So, now we head to Indy with TK at the top of a very tight points battle, followed by Briscoe and Franchitti. It also looks like we could have as many as 38-40 legitimate car/driver combinations, and genuine bumping for a second consecutive season.

It's time for the Month of May! Look for your next update following the first qualifying weekend.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Racing Times: Grand Prix of Long Beach

Jim Murphy is a former pit-lane announcer for both the CART and IndyCar Radio Networks. He is a reporter covering both CART and the Indy Racing League. After almost five years away from the sport, he returned for the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and here are his thoughts and impressions:

By Jim Murphy

It had been a few years since I last visited the Grand Prix of Long Beach and I wasn't sure what to expect. Since my last visit, the track had changed, the drivers had changed, and even the series running the event had changed. Twice.

However, I immediately realized that one thing had not changed - this was the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and it was nothing less than the annual renewing of vows in America's love affair with the automobile. From the Lifestyle Expo sporting environmentally responsible eco-cars to the high energy, smoke belching, no-redeeming-quality-other-than-it's-fun-to-do Drifting events, this was a celebration of the automobile worthy of the Southern California tradition.

I arrived in town with concerns. Would the state of our economy cast a cloud over the weekend? Would the event be a shadow of its former self? Would the racing, thrills and star power of years past be lost, blown aside by the winds of time? The answer to all, I'm happy to say, is, absolutely NOT!

Driving in from the airport, I heard ads on the radio talking about the race-the anticipation built. Pulling off the 710 Freeway, I saw banners and signs-there was a feeling of electricity. Walking to the track I heard the Indy Lights cars in their morning practice session-my pace quickened. The first sight of a car barreling up Pine Avenue under full song-the adrenaline began to flow.

Throngs of people filled the paddock, the stands, the midway, and the exhibit hall. Bright sunshine poured down from clear skies, casting aside for many economic gloom and all-but-the-minimal clothing. The scent of sunscreen, the sounds of high-energy music and the sight of the inflatable King Taco cried out, "This is Long Beach!"

The annual Pro/Celebrity race is as much a signature part of the weekend as the headline Indy Car event. Once again, this race did not disappoint those who have come to count on it. Oh, there was some fine racing. Don't get me wrong. But the Pro/Celeb race is really the world's most elaborate demolition derby, providing numerous opportunities to take perfectly good tricked-out street machines and reduce them to kit form, to the adoring hoots and hollers of the assembled masses. It just doesn't seem to be Long Beach without the King of the Beach, Al Unser Jr., behind the wheel. Unser led the charge in the Pro Division, slicing through the wanna-be's, taking the lead, and then checking out, finishing ahead of Celebrity driver Keanu Reeves.

"Whoa."

Once again, Little Al was on the podium in Long Beach. He's spent so much time there that I think he probably owes the city taxes.

Which brings us to Helio Castroneves. His recent troubles with the I.R.S. kept the Dancing With The Stars champ from dancing with the cars during the off-season. After his "not guilty" verdict was handed down on Friday morning, Team Penske wasted no time in putting Helio into a car the next day. I was particularly pleased to see the IndyCar Series make reasonable accommodations to bring Helio up to speed as quickly as possible. They allowed him some Saturday morning hot laps in a Honda Accord Pace Car, followed by a full session of practice, as opposed to the half-session in split groups for everyone else.

Helio responded well, and with his team's help, landed himself a top-10 finish in his first time in a race car on a track layout he had only driven for the first time a day earlier.

But the real measure of Team Penske's preparation was the Verizon Wireless ride they had standing by for Will Power. Aside from being one of the two flat-out best-looking cars on the grid (Luczo Dragon's #2 USAF machine was also stunning), the brilliant black and chrome machine was impeccably ready for Will Power to step into after he climbed out of Helio's #3 on Saturday morning.

How well-prepared? Pole Position prepared. What about on Race Day? With a Penske crew brought in from its sports-car team, Power and Company overcame a non-functioning radio to race themselves home in 2nd place. They would have won, but there was a certain determined Scotsman who was literally unstoppable.

Dario Franchitti was just plain hooked up. Aside from getting jumped at the start, Franchitti drove the wheels off his Target Chip Ganassi machine. Or, more precisely, he did the exact opposite. While other drivers found themselves slipping and sliding under acceleration, the rear of Franchitti's car was firmly planted in nearly every corner for all 85 laps, yielding him acceleration off the corners that proved to be unmatched by anyone else.

While I'm on the topic of racing, I can't help but appreciate the parity in this year's season to date. There was a time in IndyCar, not long ago, when, unless you were running for Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti Green, you were like so much meat by-product, filling out the field. In Champ Car, the races belonged to Newman Haas unless something seriously wrong happened.

Under a unified banner, all those teams are competitive, but so many of the smaller teams are taking the fight to them in an impressive manner. Justin Wilson, E J Viso, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Raphael Matos have Dale Coyne, HVM, Vision and Luczo Dragon, respectively, all sticking their noses into the mix in competitive ways, not only in qualifying but in late-race situations.

I noted that Andretti Green Racing really showed its experience this weekend. While the team struggled for speed during qualifying (Marco Andretti didn't even make the first cut), the team used solid strategy and superior racecraft to make the most of its day, landing Tony Kanaan on the podium and Danica Patrick fourth.

Late in the race, Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe drove up under the rear of Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon under caution, punting the defending Indy 500 champion and stalling him on the main straightaway. Briscoe continued on, but not until Roger Penske radioed to him, "What HAPPENED out there?", echoing the sentiment of 70,000 of my closest friends.

Then, Long Beach public address fixture Bruce Flanders came on the P.A., his ultra-laid back, beach-dude baritone proclaiming, "Ahhh, I know what happened. Ryan Briscoe must be driving one of Paul Tracy's old cars."

The 35th Annual Long Beach Grand Prix is behind us now. The name Franchitti will go down in the history of the event with names like Andretti, Unser, Zanardi, Vasser, Power, Tracy, Bourdais, and Piquet. No asterisk. No footnotes. No disclaimers.

This was a full-on edition of the event that we have known and loved for years. It may have been a few years since I last was here, but I don't plan on missing next year's.

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