16 October 2011

IndyCar Loses a Piece of Its Heart with Dan Wheldon's Passing

It was supposed to be the culmination a weeklong party for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Instead, it turned tragic, ironically taking the life of a driver who was the life of many parties.
Dan Wheldon was vital part of IZOD IndyCar Series' heartbeat. He took the characteristics fans loved most about the series and embodied nearly all of them.
The bat out of hell driving style? Wheldon could be counted on to drive as fast as possible, no matter the situation. Sunday, he was tasked with the challenge of passing 33 cars to win $5 million. No sweat for Wheldon, who had passed 10 cars at the time of the wreck that took his life.
Appreciation of history? Wheldon understood Indianapolis and had nearly mastered the track, winning twice and recording two runner-up finishes. In 2011, he took an underfunded team and helped guide and inspire them throughout the month, becoming the first man to lead one lap - the final lap - in winning the Indianapolis 500.
After the win, and without enough funding to run more, Wheldon was part of the pioneering spirit of IndyCar, serving as the test driver for the 2012 IndyCar safety cell and aero kit. Now, that work will be Wheldon's lasting legacy in the series; no one will be able to look at the car without remembering Weldon's work this summer. 
In a series that saw its share of drivers moving on "to bigger and better things," Wheldon never made noise about leaving the series, even when it was apparent he would be a part-time driver in 2011. That willingness to stay and promote the sport was admired by many, and Wheldon's tenure in the series provided fans with the ability to watch Wheldon grow up in the sport.
Wheldon entered the series as a young, brash, talented Englishman. Within two years, he had captured his first Indianapolis 500 trophy and was seemingly on top of the sport. Constantly with a smile on his face, Wheldon's grin always seemed to hint at mischief.
Constantly in search of fun, Wheldon formed quite the quartet with Andretti-Green teammates Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. The group was legendary for its camaraderie, pranks and generally having a great time every weekend, no matter the circumstances. Any twenty-something male could relate to that experience, and Wheldon's celebrity within the series increased troughout the decade. (I'll admit to being a 22-year old cheering for Wheldon in 2003-05 in part because of of his Jim Beam sponsorship). 
By the turn of the decade, though, Wheldon had learned something else that endeared him to fans: humility. After an ultimately disappointing run with Target Chip Ganassi, Wheldon returned to Panther Racing, finishing runner-up in the 500 in both 2009 and 2010.
Still, this season brought with its own trials, as it was Herta who brought in Wheldon as a one-off entry for the 500. His willingness to drive for Herta, while competing with the Ganassis and Penskes was remarkable, and his win in May will always be one of the most memorable moments in the 100-year history of IMS. 
With a wife and two young sons, Wheldon had clearly matured from the 2005 Indianapolis 500 champion, just as most young men tend to do in their early 30's.
It's safe to say Wheldon got "it." For those of us who work in sports, a realization exists that we're working in the toy factory. Wheldon understood that - his joy at being involved in IndyCar was apparent in every interview.

A piece of the IndyCar Series - it's joy at getting to go out and push the limits of speed, man and machine - is gone. But Wheldon's spirit touched so many that the series will go on, albeit with heavy hearts for quite some time.

22 July 2011

New Layout, High Tempers Promise Excitement at Edmonton

A week off is not likely to cool the tempers resulting from the highly entertaining (and controversial) Honda Indy Toronto two week ago as the IZOD IndyCar Series continues its Canadian foray, heading west to Edmonton for the Edmonton Indy.
As much controversy as there was at Toronto, with three separate incidents not being penalized (to the chagrin of Tony Kanaan, Will Power and others), it was at Edmonton in 2010 where controversy reigned.
Leading in the closing laps, race officials ruled that then-leader Helio Castroneves came off his line to defend first place against teammate Will Power. Power had to check up, allowing Scott Dixon to pass; when officials ruled a drive-through penalty in the waning laps against the Brazilian, handing Dixon the victory.
Indycar Series 2010 Edmonton Controversial Finish (via Motorsports45)
While Canada is known as a relatively gentile country, fuses were short in Toronto, where Power repeatedly criticized points leader Dario Franchitti for triggering Power's spin on Lap 56. A wreck later in the race had Power fuming with Alex Tagliani, as well. Whether Power has cooled in the time off remains to be seen, but now trailing Franchitti by 55 points in the championship, Power will need to be nearly flawless the rest of the way if he wants to dethrone the two-time defending champion.
A new course awaits drivers at the Edmonton City Centre Airport; with some runways being shutdown, NZR Consulting drew up a new circuit on the airport land, a 13-turn, 2.3 mile course with plenty of opportunities to carry speed into turns and set up passing. Already, Tagliani has predicted multiple wrecks on the new venue. While drivers continue to whinge about the double-file restarts, the fact remains that only one of the several incidents at Toronto was in relation to the double-file restart, coming on Marco Andretti's admittedly shaky move at the end of the race.
Still, with the cars racing in close quarters and desperation growing in the heat of the summer, expect some fireworks at Edmonton.
What to Watch: Our words from the Toronto preview:
After five consecutive races on ovals, we may have forgotten how treacherous double-file restarts on the street circuits can be. Power lost valuable ground at Long Beach when taken out, while contact between cars at St. Petersburg, Barber and Brazil left tempers short.
Midway through the year, you mix in the emotions of drivers who are beginning to feel the pressure, whether to move up through the pack in order to possibly save a job or to challenge for a podium, and toss in the close-quarters of Toronto, it's a recipe for flared tempers and choice words.
'Wanker' qualifies as a choice word, correct? I'd say we pegged that one (about time we got something right this year). The same would still apply this week, as emotions are still high and each driver's level of desperation ebbs and flows depending on their spot in the points.
After a week of coming under fire from drivers and fans for a lack of penalties, keep an eye on race control; an early penalty for blocking or avoidable contact could be thrown to send a message that drivers' complaints were heard and that the stewards are keeping a close eye on the racing.
Who to Watch: A week after blasting Franchitti and Tagliani, keep an eye on Will Power. The Australian is always a treat to watch on road and street courses, but this week, I have a feeling Power is going to push the envelope more than usual. Whether it results in him blistering the field or spinning off course remains to be seen, but his expected on-track battles with Franchitti and possibly Tagliani will be highly entertaining. 
While none of the three are native to Alberta, the home crowd will once again be pulling for James Hinchcliffe, Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani. Hinchcliffe and Tracy were on to solid runs at Toronto before contact hurt both drivers, while Tagliani suffered the slings and arrows of Power after punting the No. 12 Verizon car. To add to the fracas, Tagliani was on his side just laps later, rolling on two wheels along the catch fence following a late wreck. 
Championship Race: Eight races left, and for the first time in recent memory, Dario Franchitti is threatening to make the championship run an afterthought. Franchitti's left front tire helped him turn a 20-point lead into a 55-point cushion over Power in the World Championship standings. While Scott Dixon is in third, 83 points back, the closest battle is for fourth, where Oriol Servia leads Tony Kanaan by a scant 11 points. In fact fourth through 10th in the standings are separated by as many points (39) as Servia is to Dixon.
Franchitti's efforts over the last half decade have the driver climbing open-wheel racing's all-time wins charts in a hurry, and the the Scotsman is beginning to cement a legacy that would put him in the company of some of the all-time greats. A fourth series championship rests in his hands, and were he to pair that with another Indianapolis 500 (he shows no signs of slowing down), Franchitti could begin to make the case for the most versatile driver in the history of Indycar racing. 
Picking a Winner(s): We backed Power in Toronto, and there is no reason not to pick the Aussie at Edmonton. Two years ago, he thoroughly dominated, setting the stage for a full-time ride with Team Penske. Last year, he arguably should have won the race. This year, the angry Power fuels him to the checkered flag.
On the TV: IZOD IndyCar Series continues on Versus this week, with qualifications airing at 6 p.m. ET Saturday night. Versus will bring all the emotion and excitement to air on Sunday afternoon, when coverage of the Edmonton Indy starts at 2 p.m. ET.

10 July 2011

Franchitti Takes Control of Championship With Drama-Filled Toronto Win

The close quarters of the the Exhibition Place circuit, combined with desperate drivers, proved a combustible mix at Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto. After 85 contact-filled laps, it was Dario Franchitti who emerged on top, taking a controversial victory to seize control of the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championship chase.
Contact occurred early and often on the 1.755-mile circuit on the streets of Toronto. Turn 3 proved to be the pivotal point on the course at the beginning and end of the race, with Tony Kanaan punted by Ryan Briscoe on Lap 3 in the turn, giving fans a preview of perhaps the biggest moment of the 2011 season 54 laps later. Kanaan's anger at Briscoe was evident as he pantomimed "Use your head" at the Team Penske driver, who was not penalized for ducking under (and into) the No. 82 Geico car.
Will Power, who qualified on the pole and sat 20 points behind Franchitti entering the race, was in control early before a wreck caused by his teammate, Helio Castroneves, gave Franchitti a much-needed break. Having already pitted, Franchitti inherited the lead, while Power was forced to work his way back through the field.
Power would pass Franchitti, only to see the No. 10 close on the No. 12 Verizon car in Turn 3 on Lap 57. In a move similar to the one that put Kanaan out of the race, Franchitti clipped the right rear of Power, spinning the Australian.
The move set off a powderkeg of emotion as Versus told viewers that Franchitti would be penalized for the maneuver; some wondered why Race Control would deem Franchitti's pass/contact impermissible while Briscoe's actions with Kanaan resulted in no penalty. However, with Franchitti challenging for the win, it was announced that he would not be penalized; in fact, Versus had misreported the incident, sending fans into a tizzy about the lack of a penalty and decrying Race Control.
Having moved to the rear of the lead lap following his spin and stall, Power's day would grow worse, as Alex Tagliani got underneath the No. 12, sending him into the barriers and ending his day after 66 laps. The frustration showed on Power's face as he laced into Franchitti and Tagliani after his medical evaluation, saying of his competition for the series title:
I’m not surprised he [Franchitti] didn’t get a penalty, he never gets a penalty. It was such a dirty move. I’m really disappointed in Dario, I always race him clean, he always races dirty. The guy that mouths off and whinges about everyone, he’s the one who’s dirty.
The 2010 series runner-up, Power followed up his post-race comments with a post-race tweet directed at Franchitti:
 hey princess thanks for that nice tap today--appreciate it
In his defense, Franchitti explained his version of events after the race, his fourth victory of the year:
We had that incident with Will. He outbraked himself to outbrake me and opened up the door, I went down the inside, I held the wall and Will came down. I put my nose in there, I was trying to get my nose out, but ultimately he closed the door and paid the price.
The Power-Tagliani incident seemed to touch off a devolving of the race into a series of yellow flags, which only served to upset drivers following the race. Both Franchitti and Scott Dixon, who finished second, had sharp words for Graham Rahal, with whom they share an owner, Chip Ganassi. Ganassi, too, criticized Rahal's driving, seemingly backing up some cryptic comments from Rahal about the relationship between Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing operations.
Other notable incidents included a two-car tangle between Danica Patrick and Takuma Sato on Lap 8; while a local yellow flew for the incident, Patrick gave a "thumbs up" to Sato while leaving her pit stall after making repairs.
Late in the race, cautions continued to breed cautions, as Marco Andretti touched off a five-car incident late in the race. Caught up in the wreck, Oriol Servia commented post-race:
I have raced with Marco many times. He is an aggressive driver but he's always raced me clean. But today, I think he just had a bad sleep or something because earlier in the race at Turn 8, I'm turning in and I see him coming all locked up and I had to move or, if not, we were both going to crash. I passed him back after that and on this last restart he hit me. Listen, we all make mistakes, but I stopped at his car to ask him 'Dude what happened?' and he said "You turned in on me; I was on the inside.' I was on Justin's inside and there wasn't room for three (cars) and he punted me in the back. I'm sure when he sees the replay he will realize it was his fault
Ironically, it was the yellow touched off by Power that set Franchitti up to easily pass Rahal for the lead with 14 laps remaining. A three-car incident on the restart sent Tagliani riding the rail on two tires before landing on all fours; taking the green flag with nine laps to go, five more cars including both Newman-Haas cars of Oriol Servia and Canadian James Hinchcliffe, were caught up in a Turn 1 cluster. 
Franchitti would not be truly challenged on the restarts and with Dixon behind him, there was no doubt that the Scot would cruise to the victory, which leaves him comfortably in control of the championship with eight races remaining. Franchitti leads Power by 55 points, while Dixon sits 83 points back. 
Post-race, Race Control attempted to explain its decisions not to levy penalties in the race's two most high-profile wrecks, which only served to send some drivers' tempers flaring once more, with Kanaan sarcastically promising to do leave a parking lots' worth of space when faced with a two-wide race.
The IZOD IndyCar Series field will see wider spaces to race in two weeks, when the series heads to Edmonton for the Edmonton Indy on Sunday, July 24. Whether tempers will cool by then remains to be seen. 
IZOD IndyCar Series - Honda Indy Toronto
TORONTO - Results Sunday of the Honda Indy Toronto IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 1.755 mile Streets of Toronto, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):
1.  (3) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
2.  (2) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
3.  (8) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
4.  (20) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
5.  (14) Vitor Meira, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
6.  (7) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
7.  (10) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
8.  (22) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
9.  (18) EJ Viso, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
10.  (17) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
11.  (26) Ana Beatriz, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
12.  (6) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
13.  (5) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
14.  (13) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Honda, 84, Running
15.  (11) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 83, Running
16.  (24) Paul Tracy, Dallara-Honda, 82, Running
17.  (12) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Honda, 81, Running
18.  (23) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 81, Running
19.  (21) Danica Patrick, Dallara-Honda, 79, Running
20.  (19) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 79, Running
21.  (25) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 77, Contact
22.  (4) Mike Conway, Dallara-Honda, 76, Contact
23.  (9) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Honda, 71, Contact
24.  (1) Will Power, Dallara-Honda, 66, Contact
25.  (15) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Honda, 43, Contact
26.  (16) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Honda, 2, Contact
Race Statistics
Winners average speed:   76.805
Time of Race: 01:56:32.1501
Margin of victory: .7345 of a second
Cautions:  8 for 32 laps
Lead changes: 3 among 3 drivers
Lap Leaders: Power 1 - 32, Franchitti 33 - 48, Rahal 49 - 71, Franchitti 72 - 85
Point Standings: Franchitti 353, Power 298, Dixon 270, Servia 232, Kanaan 221, Briscoe 219, Andretti 216, Rahal 208, Hildebrand 193, Tagliani 173.