30 May 2009

MIlwaukee Preview

With Helio Castroneves starting second-to-last (Stanton Barrett crashed during practice and will technically start last, but I don't see him actually taking part in the race.), it seems to open up the ABC Supply A.J. Foyt 225 on Sunday at 3:30 ET.

While the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion will start 20th, his teammate and defending Milwaukee champion Ryan Briscoe will start on the pole. It was at Milwaukee last year that Briscoe turned his season and perhaps his IndyCar Series career around - beating Scott Dixon across the finish line after a wreck with three laps to go put "Poor" (it seems like everyone refers to Vitor as "poor Vitor" these days) Vitor Meira flying above Marco Andretti's car.

Briscoe's win was his first career ICS win and the first of three during the 2008 season. In 2009 Milwaukee qualifications, he was .2 mph quicker than his front row partner, Graham Rahl. The Penske and Newman/Haas/Lanigan teams were the only ones to crack 168.00 mph during qualifications, which should help them stay out front of the field, theoretically.

However, lurking in the inside of row two is Tony Kanaan, who has never finished worse than fourth at the one-mile ring, picking up victories in 2006 and '07.

Scott Dixon will start next to Kanaan, and I see him, Kanaan and Briscoe challenging for the lead most of the day.

I fear that Castroneves will either be too aggressive in passing his way through the field or use up too much of his car in doing so; however, I see a top 5 finish for him.

So, my predictions for the ABC Supply A.J. Foyt 225:
  1. Tony Kanaan
  2. Ryan Briscoe
  3. Scott Dixon
  4. Helio Castroneves
  5. Dario Franchitti
  6. Graham Rahal

27 May 2009

Are the Rumors True? Who Knows...

Robin Miller of SpeedTV.com (formerly of the Indianapolis Star) is reporting that Tony George has been ousted as President of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (story here)

No one else is confirming this story as of yet, though a few twitterers also have reported the same (and if it is confirmed, I will give them credit for breaking the story).

UPDATE [1:37 p.m.]: Tony George spoke to Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star, telling him,
"I am still CEO and still president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation, Hulman and Company, and CEO of the Indy Racing League."
For the full Cavin story, click here.

Regardless, I'll have more thoughts on this later tonight.

UPDATE No. 2: My Take:
Tony George may not be out as president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but when he makes a presentation to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board later this year, he may be faced with a difficult choice: how to remain in power as the President of IMS and continue to grow the IndyCar Series.

For all of his pros and cons, it cannot be denied that George has overseen a time of massive improvement at IMS - all of which was done without a taxpayer paying a dime to support the renovations. From redoing seating to rebuilding the Pagoda to creating additional safety systems for drivers, George has made sure that the viewing public gets their money's worth when inside the gates at 16th and Georgetown.

Yes, some of the criticisms of George are warranted: it remains to be seen whether or not creating the Indy Racing League and subsequently reuniting it with Champ Car was worth the trouble (you could make an argument that we'd be watching Formula 1-style racing in which mega-budget teams dominate if he hadn't); some would argue that inviting NASCAR and F-1 to IMS was worth it (though it now brings people to Speedway and Indianapolis three times a year, further boosting the local economy).

So, obviously, George comes with his benefits and detractors, but I would argue that most of the moves he has made as IMS president have been for the benefit of the Speedway. IMS continues to be the world's most famous racetrack, and the Indianapolis 500 is still the biggest race in the world. That said, it may be becoming apparent that some on the IMS board would like George to begin focusing his efforts in one area - continuing the growth of the ICS.

In the statement released today by IMS, George's mother, Mary Hulman-George, said the following:
"There was a general discussion about the challenges and opportunities facing all of our companies and where most of our energies need to be spent. All of our properties are doing well, given the challenges of the current economy. The Indy Racing League represents our greatest growth opportunity and therefore deserves the most attention at this point."
So, what can we read from this? It seems like the board at IMS wants to grow the IndyCar brand, using it and the Indianapolis 500 to continue fueling each other's renewal and growth. It appears as if the board would like Mr. George to present a plan for how he feels that he could continue to be a source of growth for both without necessarily pouring the George Family's capital into both. If he can do that, then I would venture to guess George will stay on board as CEO of ICS and President of IMS.

Now, how can he do that? A quote from George is telling:
“This place wakes up every morning and eats money. We spend a lot of money keeping it in the condition we do. Certainly the Indy Racing League has in the past required a lot of capital to keep it going when there was two competing series — and a lot of money was spent last year trying to unify. We got that done and everybody’s hoping to catch a tail wind and then the economy’s in our face. We’re just dealing with that.”
It's easy to blame things on the current economy, but with a new engine package set to roll out in 2011, plus new races being booked internationally, more money will be coming into IMS and ICS, along with an increase in worldwide popularity (with ventures into Brazil, China and even India, the IndyCar Series seems poised to strike should Formula 1 fall flat on its face). Should the international dollars flow into ICS (and some of those conversion rates are pretty darn good), then perhaps the Georges' won't have to bankroll so much of the series.

Basically, it's the economy, stupid. If George is able to demonstrate a growth plan for ICS that displays a clear vision for how its growth will allow the Indianapolis 500 and IMS to continue its resurgence, then he'll stay on board in both places. If he can't, then the board will probably move to bring in someone who can work with George (who would presumably stay on as CEO of ICS) as the new president of IMS.

25 May 2009

The View from the Paddock

If an IndyCar fan was asked what they desired from the 93rd Indianapolis 500, they may have wanted to see a Danica Patrick win, for history. Or to see Tony Kanaan, maybe the best driver to never win at Indianapolis, break his hard-luck ways. But, from a national perspective, Helio Castroneves' victory was just about as good as it could get.

From a national perspective, Castroneves is a name brand. His Dancing with the Stars win put him into more households than his first two 500 wins (2001, 2002), but with his third win (making him one of six drivers to wear the winners' wreath three times) he is poised to help continue the growth of the ICS.

The IndyCar Series is now able to market itself far better than it was when Castroneves took home his first two titles. Castroneves is one of the series most attractive stars and one whose name will draw a headline across the ESPN ticker or on an Associated Press feed. The improved marketing effort actually started when he won on Dancing with the Stars and the ICS continued to receive headlines during Castroneves' trial for tax evasion. Pundits claimed that if Castroneves was found guilty, it would be tough for the IndyCar Series to maintain its positive momentum and continue to make inroads in the sporting scene.

However, five weeks ago, Castroneves was acquitted on the all but one of the charges against him (the final one was dropped this week) and his comeback has been impressive. Always one of the most happy-go-lucky drivers in the paddock, Castroneves has had a continuous smile for the last 35 days; additionally, his smiles have translated into solid results on the track, as he is now just five points behind Dario Franchitti for the IndyCar Series points lead, despite missing the series-opening race.

As for the race itself, it was pretty much over after the last round of pit stops saw Castroneves come out in front without the Ganassi stable of Franchitti and Scott Dixon near him. Both cars had issues in the pits, which allowed Castroneves to put Dan Wheldon, Danica Patrick, Townsend Bell and Will Power between him and the strongest two cars remaining on the grid.

Still, the Brazilian navigated the corners brilliantly to pull away and win. Over the coming days and weeks, Castroneves will be whisked away for a media tour, allowing the man who entered into mainstream America's view in late 2007 to again enter homes and promote the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series.

21 May 2009

Moving Throught the Field: Up Front

We've taken a look at the 22 least likely drivers to take home the checkered flag at the 93rd Indianapolis 500. So, with race day less than 4 days from now, it's time to look at the 11 drivers whom I think you may see in Victory Lane on Sunday:

11. Dan Wheldon (Car #4; Outside Row 6) – After Meira’s second-place run at Indy last year, most people assumed that Wheldon could improve upon it when signing with Panther in the offseason. However, the Englishman’s season has not gotten off to the best of starts and it continued into May, with Wheldon backing into the wall at IMS on Pole Day. The wreck cost Wheldon a probable first day qualifying result. The following day, Wheldon was just seventh-quickest among the second-day qualifiers. Panther and Wheldon have not shown the speed most expected them to have in the second half of the month, but they both have solid records at the track. Wheldon is the active leader in laps led at Indianapolis with 234, and with Panther’s background, they cannot be counted out on Sunday.

10. Will Power (Car #12; Outside Row 3) – Just a fantastic name for a racecar driver – straight out of central casting. Power missed the Kansas race because Penske chose not to run three cars, but they are doing so for the 500, giving Verizon Wireless some time on Power’s side pod. The young Australian has been sneaky quick during the month, placing in the top 10 times most of the month. As a rookie last year, Power worked his way up from a 23rd-place start to finish 13th. With Team Penske behind him this year, 13th may be a disappointment for Power in 2009, but a top 10 should be expected.

9. Mario Moraes (Car #5; Inside Row 3) – The second-year driver has been a revelation over the last two to three weeks, impressively qualifying seventh and even leading the speed charts on one occasion. KV Racing seems to have made up substantial ground at Indianapolis and Moraes does not appear to be the rookie who nearly walked away from IndyCar after his first oval test. Last year, Moraes led a lap via pit strategy before finishing 18th after most people pegged him as one of the first drivers out of the race. The biggest question facing Moraes is whether or not he can completely cover the learning gap that occurs at Indianapolis. While I think he can make up a decent amount of ground over his first two years, his best chances at a win may be a year or two away.

8. Danica Patrick (Car #7; Inside Row 4) – Indianapolis has been Danica Patrick’s best track, arguably (she could put Motegi up there, too, since she won); it cannot be denied that the track launched her into another stratosphere of popularity after the 2005 race. While many have surmised that this Indy 500 could be Patrick’s year to break through and win, she has been disappointingly slow for parts of this month. A strong race strategy should put her in line for a top 10 finish and maybe help her contend, but that’s definitely not what Patrick had in mind when she arrived in Indianapolis at the beginning of the month.

7. Graham Rahal (Car #02; Inside Row 2) – Rahal obviously has the pedigree to win the 500, as his father did in 1986. Driving for the late Paul Newman’s team also adds to the storylines around young Rahal. While the youngster certainly has the talent and equipment to win a 500, I wonder if he possesses the focus needed for the race which requires near-perfect execution over 800 corners. Last year, starting 13th, he was the first driver out, finding the wall in finishing 33rd. While his inexperience at the track may not bite him this time, I think he still needs a few years to truly contend with the Penskes, Ganassis and select AGR drivers at IMS.

6. Marco Andretti (Car #26; Middle Row 3) – Andretti is familiar with the third row, starting ninth, ninth and seventh in his three prior starts. And in each of his starts he has led meaningful laps, so the third-generation of Andretti’s at Indianapolis has the talent to win the race. Andretti has finished second, 24th (late wreck but ran up front most of the race) and third. One of these years, he will win the 500. He hasn’t been as quick as expected this month (along with most of AGR), but look for him up front – if he can get into the lead, he’ll be tough to move off, but he will have trouble catching the Penskes and Ganassis.

5. Ryan Briscoe (Car #6; Middle Row 1) – It’s not that I don’t think Briscoe can win – he has been one of the quickest drivers all month and has the right equipment (Penske). I’m just not sure he has the ability to go 200 laps without a mistake at this point in his career. With Luzco Dragon (and Penske backing) in 2007, he was fifth after starting seventh. In 2005, he finished 10th after opening the race 24th. Last year however, he was in the same position as this year but ran into Danica Patrick on pit road, regulating him to a 23rd-place result. Since then, Briscoe has been lights out, but I still question whether he can go 200 incident-free laps. If he can, the Australian could begin to establish a Bledisloe Cup-level rivalry with New Zealander Scott Dixon.

4. Tony Kanaan (Car #11t; Outside Row 2) – Needing to use his teammate Hideki Mutoh’s tub from Kansas just to find speed this month, Kanaan has made the most of the change, often placing among the top five-six times on the Indy speed charts since qualifying sixth on the grid. In each of his first seven Indy 500 starts, Kanaan has led laps, and could have won both the 2004 and 2007 500s, losing both due to rain. If Kanaan can get to the front late in the race, he will be tough to move off the lead; the problem could be getting the chance to lead the race late with the quality of drivers who seem to have slightly better gear right now. A win for Kanaan would help him move towards a second IndyCar Series title, which he won in 2004 – the last two 500 winners have won the points title (Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon), which Kanaan currently leads.

3. Scott Dixon (Car #9; Middle Row 2) – Indianapolis has seen only four repeat winners in the 93 years of racing at the track (Al Unser, Mauri Rose, Helio Castroneves and Bill Vukovich). While Dixon certainly has the backing to win the race again, the amount of good fortune, combined with skill, needed to win in consecutive years is staggering. Dixon will have a chance and will be near the front towards the end, but I see him falling just short of Indianapolis 500 win number two.

2. Dario Franchitti (Car #10; Outside Row 1) – Franchitti’s comeback to IndyCar has been overshadowed by that of Helio Castroneves, but is just as impressive. Franchitti won at Long Beach in his second race back and is among the points leaders coming to IMS. With Ganassi Racing behind him and three top 10 finishes in his last three starts at Indianapolis (including the 2007 500 title), look for Franchitti to be there at the end.

1. Helio Castroneves (Car #3; Inside Row 1) – Castroneves’ return to IndyCar seems to be out of a made-for-tv movie. Win the Indianapolis 500 twice, become a national celebrity on a dancing show, be arrested and tried for tax evasion, receive an acquittal. All that’s left is to find national redemption with his third 500 victory. The pole position has been the ticket to winning on 19 occasions, and when you combine the starting position with Team Penske’s ability to win at Indianapolis (14 times), Castroneves is the man to beat at Indianapolis this year.

So, with all this, I'll post exactly how I see the race unfolding (with results from 1-33) tomorrow, because let's face it - if all these drivers are up front at the end of the race, we will have witnessed one of, if not the greatest Indianapolis 500 ever.

20 May 2009

Raceday Activities (besides the 500, of course)

The gates for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 open at 6 a.m., so people need plenty to do before the 1 p.m. (ET) start of the race. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for those of you heading to the track:
  1. Visit the IMS Hall of Fame Museum. Yes, it's open race day. Check it out, especially in the Centennial Era, to get a feel for what has happened at IMS over the last 100 years. Adults cost $3, while kids 6-15 are $1. Anyone else is free.
  2. Get there early and watch the sunrise over the Pagoda. Sunrise is scheduled for 6:23 a.m. on Sunday. So if you can get a good view, just take in the sun rising over the track and snap a few good photos.
  3. Start a pool. Find some folks sitting around you. The Indianapolis Star will sell a special 500 section on Sunday - tear out the drivers into 33 boxes, put them in a hat and draw. For a bit of money (say $5 a driver), let everyone pick out a name or two. Last place (or whomever draws Nelson Philippe) gets their money back, while the winner gets the pot. It'll still conversation throughout the race and help you cheer for drivers you otherwise wouldn't. In my block of 4 tickets, we have one seat cushion that we found after the 2007 race. The winner of our pool gets the seat cushion the following year.
  4. In the event of rain (and it's rained in two of the last six years: 2004, 2007), have a deck of cards (well, if you're covered) and break out a game of euchre. The card game is easy to pick up for someone who's never played and just like the Indianapolis 500, is an Indiana tradition.
  5. Play the "I am Indy" game. Much of the activities on race day revolve around the consumption of alcohol. With this in mind, we have invented "I am Indy," which plays off of one the IndyCar Series' slogans. Anyone with a cooler can play, young or old. Find a demographic who fits the "I am Indy" model - it could be the man with jorts and a mullet, or it could be the preppy couple with checkered flag shorts and popped colors. Either way, once a member of your group spots "Indy," they must call out "I am Indy." Everyone else in the group must take a sip of their beverage to acknowledge the find.
If you have any other pre-race activities, just post them in the comments.

Moving Throught the Field: The Middle

Last night, we posted the back end of the 2009 Indianapolis 500 field. So, in our effort to provide a guess as to who will be up front come lap 200, we move to the middle of the field. The final 11 drivers should go up tomorrow, and then I'll attempt to make an educated guess at who will win the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 Friday or Saturday.

Thus, here is the middle of field, in terms of chances to win:

22. Sarah Fisher (Car #67; Outside Row 7) – The fan favorite finally has good funding behind her, thanks to sponsorship from Dollar General. She’s been consistent throughout the month of May, but whether or not lady luck is on her side on Sunday remains to be seen. In eight career starts, Fisher has not finished better than 18th in her career at IMS.

21. Robert Doornbos (Car #06t; Middle Row 8) – “Doorknobs” crashed twice in a 24-hour period earlier this month, preventing him from qualifying until the second weekend. Had he looked better on the first weekend of qualifying, perhaps I’d move him up the list. The Dutchman was quick early in the month, and he has a quality team behind him at Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing. With Arie Lyuendyk serving as his driver coach, I think Doornbos has a shot to be the Rookie of the Year; however, he’ll need to avoid collecting any cars as he attempts to navigate his way towards the front.

20. Tomas Scheckter (Car #19; Middle Row 9) – The young South African has always been fast at Indianapolis, leading 148 laps in his career at IMS. However, he has been prone to not finishing, failing to finish four of his seven starts at Indy. Having been in his Dale Coyne Racing machine for about nine days come race day, look for Scheckter to be exciting early, but flip a coin when it comes to whether or not he will finish the race.

19. Townsend Bell (Car #8; Outside Row 8) – Bell confuses me. He seems to drive well wherever he runs, but he can’t find a full-time ride. With KV Racing, he has been consistently quick over the last two weeks, and the KV team appears to be right behind Newman-Haas-Lanigan in terms of the former Champ Car teams that unified with ICS. With a 10th-place finish last year, Bell could take another step towards a full-time ride if he can replicate the effort at Indy once again.

18. Justin Wilson (Car #18; Outside Row 5) – For a brief moment on Pole Day, Wilson was on the provisional pole. Then his car was disqualified for being underweight, and that seems to be the last we heard of the Englishman. When Wilson was a surprising third at St. Pete, he commented that hopefully the team would make up ground on the ovals as well as they did on road/street courses. With little to no testing on ovals thus far, however, Dale Coyne Racing still needs to make up ground before Wilson’s true racing talents shine on all courses.

17. Raphael Matos (Car #2; Outside Row 4) – Matos, based on speed alone is the odds-on-favorite for Rookie of the Year. After crashing out at St. Petersburg, the rookie has done well for Luzco Dragon Racing, finishing both the Long Beach and Kansas races. With Jay Penske’s pedigree, the team has been fast at Indy – his qualifying time of 223.429 is actually the seventh-quickest in the field. Still, Matos will need some significant breaks to get to Victory Lane, though a top 10 performance is not out of the question.

16. Hideki Mutoh (Car #27; Inside Row 6) – The second-year driver from Japan was the weakest of the four Andretti-Green cars in qualifying, needing to go into the first Sunday of qualifying to make the field. While he posted a top-10 finish at last year’s 500, it was fairly non-descript, as he finished on the lead lap but did not lead a lap. Japan will need to wait another year to have a chance at their first Indianapolis 500 winner.

15. Ed Carpenter (Car #20; Middle Row 6) – If not for a couple pit mishaps last year, Ed Carpenter may have been in a better position to win the 2008 500. As it was, Carpenter finished a surprising fifth in the bright yellow Menards machine. The car colors remain the same in 2009, but Carpenter hasn’t appeared as quick as a year prior, qualifying 17th on the grid. Carpenter will need to use some quality pit stops and race strategy to come anywhere near his finish in 2008.

14. Paul Tracy (Car #15; Inside Row 5) – The runner-up in the 2002 race, Tracy has not had good luck in any of his other five starts to the 500. From 1992-95, Tracy finished 20th, 30th, 23rd and 24th, respectively, failing to go more than 136 laps in any start. Just as Team Green was in 2002, Tracy is with a solid team in 2009; but again, Tracy was with Penske and Newman/Haas Racing in his prior starts. So which roll of the dice will Tracy pick up in 2009? His ‘bat out of hell’ mentality can get him to the front, but will it wear down his KV Racing machine? I think it will get him eventually, somewhere around lap 170.

13. Alex Lloyd (Car #99; Middle Row 4) – Lloyd has been the talk of Gasoline Alley for most of the month due to two things: his surprising run into the top 11 of qualifying on Pole Day and his pink car, with HER energy drink sponsorship. Contracted to Chip Ganassi, Lloyd has the equipment to contend up front, but also will be working in partnership with relative 500 newcomer Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Schmidt, who is a touching story in his own right, dominates the Firestone Indy Lights Series, but can his team step it up in the 500? I think a solid top 10 finish would qualify as a step up and hopefully bring Sam Schmidt’s team into the IndyCar Series in 2010.

12. Vitor Meira (Car #14; Middle Row 5) – Fun Vitor Meira fact: he has never finished worse than 12th in any of his six previous 500 starts. That 12th-place result came in 2003; since then, Meira has placed 6th, 2nd, 10th, 10th and 2nd. Not too shabby. Obviously, Meira knows his way around the track and has benefitted from strong cars and strategy. Last year, ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt Racing helped Darren Manning to a surprising run, and with Meira on board, more of the same should be expected from the Brazilian.

18 May 2009

Moving Through the Field

With five days until the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500, it's time to start looking at the field for the race and determining who has a shot at winning the event. And barring a driver change or injury, we can start counting backwards to figure out who is likely to be in Victory Lane around 4:30 on Sunday.

So, without further ado, here goes with the bottom 11 contenders to win:

33. Nelson Philippe (Car #00; Inside Row 11) - The rookie requalified his car on Bump Day, posting an average of 220.754 to hold on to his spot in the field. Philippe crashed on Pole Day and hasn't shown much speed all month.

32. Mike Conway (Car #24; Outside Row 9) – Another rookie, Conway has not finished a race this season due to wrecks at St. Petersburg and Long Beach and a mechanical failure at Kansas. During the month of May, he crashed at IMS, suffering a concussion and a bruised lung. Just as was his goal for the Mini-Marathon at the beginning of the month, if Conway can finish the 500 (maybe even on the lead lap), he should be satisfied.

31. Milka Duno (Car #31; Outside Row 10) – Making her third Indianapolis 500 appearance, most IndyCar fans are not fans of Duno’s, due to her appearance of ride-buying and seemingly lack of skills on oval tracks. Last year, she was a respectable 19th, mainly by not running into anyone. If she can do that again this year, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing should be happy.

30. John Andretti (Car #43; Inside Row 10) – The third Dreyer and Reinbold car in the ‘last four’ (I really don’t mean to pick on this team), Andretti struggled to find speed most of the month, qualifying with 15 minutes to spare on Bump Day after backing his car into the wall a week prior. A fan favorite, Andretti knows how to run at IMS, as this will be his 10th career start in the 500. However, his best finish is 5th, and that came eight years ago. A top 10 at this point would be a major surprise for the Richard Petty Motorsports/D&R collaboration.

29. Ryan Hunter-Reay (Car #21t; Middle Row 11) – I was tempted to swap Andretti and Hunter-Reay, but I think the younger American will try to do more to move up quickly in the race than the veteran Andretti. Hunter-Reay, Izod’s poster boy for the IndyCar Series, was the last driver in the field on Bump Day, qualifying as the gun went off at 6 p.m. He finished sixth in 2008, making him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year; this month he has never found the right car balance to gain speed. Still, I think he can move up through moxie and attrition to post a decent finish.

28. Alex Tagliani (Car #36; Outside Row 11) – Tagliani will hop in the car that Bruno Junqueira qualified on the outside of row 10; due to the driver swap, the Canadian will start from the rear of the field. While Conquest Racing has shown promise, I put Tagliani here more due to the karmic implications of grabbing Junqueira’s spot in the 500. While I understand the motivation behind it, I think Conquest could have gotten both drivers in the 500 had they played their cards right. The 500 gods will have revenge for their mistake.

27. E.J. Viso (Car #13; Middle Row 10) – After showing plenty of promise in his rookie season, Viso has been a relative disappointment in his sophomore season. The HVM Racing driver was 26th a year ago, going out with a bearing problem after 139 laps. One of the series’ more exciting drivers, due to his penchant for passing in tight spots, Viso will need to be aware of where he is on the track when passing at IMS or face another disappointing finish.

26. Oriol Servia (Car #17; Inside Row 9) – Last year, Servia took a KV Racing machine that qualified 25th and brought it in 11th. Oddly enough, Servia could not find a ride for 2009, eventually coming to Indianapolis as part of a second-week program with Rahal-Letterman Racing. While RLR has one Indianapolis 500 win under their belts (Buddy Rice, 2005), the one-off programs have not traditionally fared well at Indianapolis. Hopefully Servia will perform well enough to let Rahal-Letterman begin preparations for the rest of the year or the 2010 season.

25. Scott Sharp (Car #16; Middle Row 7) – The 2001 pole winner missed the 2008 500 before returning this year in a Panther Racing machine. On a one-weekend deal, Sharp missed prep time last weekend due to ALMS commitments. I question how much that will set him back; while his last three Indy 500 finishes are 7th, 9th and 6th, I think the missed time over the weekend, plus missed time due to a crash earlier this month, will keep Sharp from truly contending.

24. Davey Hamilton (Car #44; Inside Row 8) – Hamilton’s comeback from a broken back is truly inspiring, and he has run at Indianapolis the last three years now. If you’re a team looking for a solid 500 finish, Hamilton is your driver – he may not challenge for the win, but in each of the last two years, he has avoided trouble and finished on the lead lap. Look for more of the same this year.

23. A.J. Foyt IV (Car #41; Inside Row 7) – It’s tough not to like the newest Foyt in IndyCar. I think everyone would agree that it would help the sport regain some national popularity if the name “Foyt” appeared in headlines again. However, it’s tough to see A.J. IV doing well on a one-race program, even if his grandfather is operating the team. With a best finish of 14th in 2007, Foyt will do well to replicate that finish.

The middle 11 will follow tomorrow, and the top 11 on Thursday.

Seize the Day, or Seized by the Day?

I was driving in to work this morning when the news update said that Alex Tagliani, who was the last man eliminated on Indianapolis 500 Bump Day, would be replacing Bruno Junquiera, who qualified 30th in the second Conquest Racing car.

I have mixed feelings on this, as I think Conquest put themselves in a position in which they did not need to be. On Conquest's side, it's understandable that their primary sponsor, the Rexall Edmonton Indy race, would want Tagliani, a Canadian, in the Indianapolis 500 to promote the race in Alberta (on Sunday, July 26).

Junquiera, who had secured sponsorship from All Sport (who sponsored a NASCAR ride, but wanted IndyCar sponsorship when their NASCAR driver failed a drug test) apparently knew that this was a possibility, saying to the Indianapolis Star:
"I knew coming into this that Alex is Conquest's primary driver and that if something happened to the first car that I would likely give him my place."
It was tough to watch the end of Bump Day, with Tagliani in line with a car that would likely be able to bump Ryan Hunter-Reay, as the gun fired to mark the end of the day and tears welling up in the 36-year old Canadian's eyes. Despite being a veteran driver, Tagliani has never participated in the Indianapolis 500, and this decision will allow him to realize a dream.

On Junqueira's side, it's tough to watch a man who has never gotten the right "break" at Indianapolis. After qualifying on the pole in 2002, he broke his back in an accident with A.J. Foyt IV in 2005, costing himself a shot at the 500 and a probable ChampCar series title.

Moving into the Conquest stable on Friday, Junqueira qualified easily on Sunday on his first run. And while numerous drivers pulled their car out of the field and requalified at higher speeds (due to better track conditions on Sunday than on Saturday), the Conquest team felt confident enough to not do so with Tagliani.

In fact, the team pulled Tagliani out of line twice in the final moments of Bump Day - directly going against what everyone else was doing on the day. Had Tagliani and Conquest pulled out of the field and requalified at a higher speed, say at, 5:45 p.m., they would have eliminated all doubt about being bumped. As Clive Davis once said:
You've got to seize the opportunity if it is presented to you.
Conquest Racing did not seize an opportunity; rather they were seized up by the opportunity, and by doing so, they cost themselves the monetary rewards of having two cars in "The Show." And while Tagliani was guaranteed $300,000 despite not qualifying, the team, with a respectable showing in the 500, would have boosted their overall profile and kept all of their sponsors happy. By removing Junqueira in place of Tagliani, hopefully Conquest has a plan to get All Sport some publicity on Tagliani's King Tut/Rexall car.

And next time they have two cars capable of making the 500, hopefully Conquest Racing takes advantage of it to make sure they're both in the race, rather than kicking a perfectly good driver to the curb because of their failures to act decisively.

10 May 2009

Pole Day

I haven't been to qualifications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in years (probably around 15 years or so) - lots of Carb Days and plenty of 500s, but I was always busy on qualification days, most likely with baseball games.

This year, we managed to snag free tickets to Qualifications courtesy of running the Mini-Marathon (there's a perk to my ankle feeling mangled), so we packed some coolers, made some sandwiches and headed to IMS.

For $5 (what a bargain), we were able to park on Georgetown Road, directly across from the Paddock. So, by, 12:30, we had seats in the infield, right by the Vision Racing pits. With temperatures in the low 60's and winds up near 30 mph, I was glad I brought a long sleeve shirt. My other early concern involved Tony Kanaan, who was slow for most of the early-going, before he grabbed Hideki Mutoh's tub, put his 11T car wings on it and gradually found some speed. Still, Ryan Briscoe set the early pace when we headed to the Coke Zero stage to watch the George Clinton concert.

While I wasn't crazy about heading over (it was smack dab in the middle of qualifications, after all), IMS does a good job using their concerts to draw a diverse crowd. I'm sure there were a few people there who would not have attended Pole Day otherwise. Some highlights from the show:
  • One of the guitarists (they are about 10 of them) yelling, "Hello Daytona 500" as the P-Funk All-Stars warmed up and promptly getting booed
  • Turning back to the Pagoda, looking for Kanaan's qualifying speed (he was 8th at the time) and realizing he had failed his inspection
  • Watching Castoneves go out and grab pole position
  • Playing the "I am Indy" drinking game
At about 4:30, the group we were with decided to pack it in (I think they were there primarily for the beer and P-Funk All-Stars; me, I was there for racing). Coincidentally, the sun came out and the wind died down around the same time.

Also, with our group gone, we were able to use the 4 suite passes we were given earlier at the concert. I'd never been in the Infield Suites, but I should thank the Average Joe's and Indianapolis Star folks for having their suites. During Happy Hour runs, I was able to watch lap telemetry on the television screens, which helped me map the field of 11.

When Briscoe's last attempt to regain the Pole Position failed, Castroneves became the major story of the day; his last 3 weeks - from acquittal on tax evasion charges to obtaining his third career 500 pole - has been truly remarkable.

Almost as remarkable, and overlooked, were the qualifying efforts of Mario Moraes and Alex Lloyd. Last year, Moraes was a candidate to wreck at almost every track, especially on ovals. This year, he qualified seventh, ahead of three Andretti-Green cars (Marco Andretti is eighth, while Danica Patrick is 10th).

Lloyd hasn't raced an IndyCar since the 2008 Indianapolis 500. Yet in his second go-round with Chip Ganassi and a co-sponsor (last year it was Rahal Letterman, this year it is Sam Schmidt Motorsports), Lloyd got in at the gun, placing 11th in the field. Lloyd and Schmidt are pretty easy guys to root for in the remainder of the month.

The day's activities completed, we headed to Dawson's in Speedway for some excellent dinner and fun people-watching (among those we saw: Tony George and Sunday qualifier Davey Hamilton). The dinner was capped off with a stop at Long's Donuts on the way home, which definitely came in handy as we took tape off of our freshly-painted walls Sunday morning.

05 May 2009

It's Here

I heard the sounds this morning. I received a phone call from my wife, who was out at IMS for a golf outing. And the familiar high-pitched ring of the IndyCar engines came across clear as day.

The IndyLights drivers are out on the track as I write this, preparing for the Freedom 100, which will be run on Carb Day, Friday, May 20. At 2:00 p.m., rookie orientation will begin as will open testing for those who have not raced at IMS in over a year, so Paul Tracy and Scott Sharp will both have a chance to get on the track.

So, with Rookie Orientation underway, let's take a look at those who will see the track today:

  1. Stanton Barrett (Car #98) - Barrett comes to IndyCar after driving NASCAR for most of his career. The professional stuntman (over 200 movie credits) won't win the 500, but should be able to qualify his Team 3G machine, probably in the second weekend. When he's not driving this month, Barrett will be Twittering during Rookie Orientation.
  2. Alex Tagliani (Car #34) - Tagliani was recently confirmed as the Conquest Racing driver for the 500. Conquest may or may not be entering another ride (probably not), but for now, the Canadian will be looking to make the field of 33. Tagliani has run in two races this season - both road courses - not sniffing the front of the field. The driver, who was initially sponsored by the Rexall Edmonton Indy race, will feature sponsorship from "King Tut," as an exhibit featuring the child-pharoh of ancient Egypt will be in Indianapolis later this summer.
  3. Mike Conway (Car #24) - Conway has run in all three races in his rookie season, yet still is behind Tagliani in the points chase. Most of that is due to the fact the native of England has not finished a race yet. Despite his road-racing background, Conway was the victim of bad luck at St. Petersburg and wrecked at Long Beach. Mechanical issues took him out of the Kansas race. The 25-year old recently ran the Mini-Marathon, beating me by over an hour, clocking in at 1:29:49. Hopefully some of that good karma will rub off on him during the month.
  4. Nelson Philippe (Car #00 - could also be in the #31 entry, reports vary) - Philippe finished fourth in the Champ Car World Series in 2006, but was a victim of the economic woes of the series in the 2007 season, securing sponsorship for just the final two races of the '07 campaign and running with Conquest. He spent the 2008 season in Europe after the two teams he was looking at racing for folding after the IRL and CCWS merged. With his lack of experience, Philippe seems to have the right perspective (via IndyCar.com):
    "There's also great drivers like Al Unser Jr. and Johnny Rutherford that I've already spoken to and other drivers who will be helping me out. I think I have the right mind-set for it. I'm just going to take my time, build up the speed. The goal is to be on the lead lap at Lap 200. The phrase I like to say right now is 'Bring it on because I'm ready for it.' "
  5. Raphael Matos (Car #2) - Matos hitched the full-time ride with Luzco Dragon Racing this season, and has finished just one of three races. However, he placed in the top 10 in that race, avoiding the trouble that he found at St. Pete, where he attempted a low-percentage pass and wound up taking out Danica Patrick, one of his former Andretti-Green teammates. At Kansas, mechanical troubles knocked Matos out. A former IndyLights driver for AGR, Matos knows the track and could be the rookie to watch during the month. Jay Penske has picked up some of his father's tricks and if Matos can avoid the wall, could easily be the 500 Rookie of the Year.
  6. Robert Doornbos (Car #06) - "Doorknobs" (probably not his real nickname) turned some heads with his qualifying performance at Kansas, placing on the outside of the front row in his first oval race. Like Matos, the former Formula 1 driver has taken one top 10 finish and led two laps. However, Doornbos currently leads in the race for Rookie of the Year by having finished all three races this season. With Newman-Haas Racing behind him, Doornbos should be competitive all month, and if he too avoids trouble during the race, should challenge Matos for 500 Rookie of the Year honors.
Scott Sharp and Paul Tracy will also make appearances on the track today, as will Davey Hamilton, Alex Lloyd, John Andretti, all of whom have not raced at IMS since last year's 500. A.J. Foyt IV and Buddy Lazier have also been invited to take refresher laps.

And Rahal Letterman Racing will be bring one car to IMS this weekend (from Curt Cavin's twitter page) - whomever they bring (Buddy Rice or Oriol Servia) will need the refresher course as well, more than likely.