30 June 2009

It's (Finally) Official: George Out at IMS

Tony George, whose reign as the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and creator of the Indy Racing League drew a line in the sand for open-wheel racing afficianados, resigned as the chief executive officer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indy Racing League and Hulman & Co. today.

According to Curt Cavin at The Indianapolis Star
, Curt Brighton will head Hulman & Co., while Jeff Belskus will head IMS. IndianapolisMotorSpeedway.com has the following statement from Mari Hulman-George:
"Our board had asked Tony to structure our executive staff to create efficiencies in our business structure and to concentrate his leadership efforts in the Indy Racing League. He has decided that with the recent unification of open-wheel racing and the experienced management team IMS has cultivated over the years, now would be the time for him to concentrate on his team ownership of Vision Racing with his family and other personal business interests he and his family share.

"Tony will remain on the Board of Directors of all of our companies, and he will continue to work with the entire board to advance the interests of all of companies.

"Our family and the entire racing community are grateful to Tony for the leadership and direction he has provided since 1990. We are pleased that he will continue to be an important part of the Indy Racing League as a team owner and as a member of our Board of Directors, and we wish him every success."
But maybe the biggest part of Hulman-George's statement comes in the last part of the article, in which she says:
"These changes underscore our family's commitment going forward to all of our companies, especially our commitment to the growth of the Indy Racing League and the sport of open-wheel racing. We believe the Hulman-George family's long stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, beginning in 1945, and our significant investment in the Speedway and in the IRL demonstrates that we have full confidence in all of our companies and that we intend to grow them in the future."
So, the Hulman-George family remains committed to IndyCar racing at IMS. Tony George will run his team on a day-to-day basis (which he already does), while the leadership of Joie Chitwood III at IMS and Terry Angstadt and Brian Barnhardt at the IndyCar Series continues. On the day-to-day level, nothing changes.

Now, the debate can continue about how the history of American open-wheel racing will remember Tony George, but the IndyCar Series will continue with its day-to-day operations, working to gain market share and continue its progress from last season's reunification.

And honestly, unless the IMS decides to pull all financial support for the ICS (I doubt that happens, unless the series continues to lack a title sponsor), the lack of passing and exciting racing is a much bigger problem for the sport right now than the change in leadership in the ICS and IMS.

28 June 2009

I Didn't See It, But I Could Have Guessed the Winner

I'll admit it right now - I missed the SunTrust Indy Challenge on Saturday night (here' the box score). I was at a wedding, so the only way I followed the race was via text messages from Indycar.com. Even with a few messages, it was obvious that the Ganassi cars were dominating throughout the race. And with Scott Dixon's win (congratulations to him for tying Sam Hornish for the IndyCar Series record for career wins with 19), the championship chase has turned into a three-man race, between the Kiwi, teammate Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe.

The three-man race for the IndyCar Series title should be a good one, but in terms of exciting racing, is the domination of the series by Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing good for the ICS? Since the 2008 race at Richmond, no one outside of the two organizations has won an IndyCar race.

It may seem odd, but what I think hurts the series in this instance is that both Penske cars and both Ganassi cars look the same for most of the races. If each car had different sponsorship (for instance, if Franchitti always had the TomTom or Air Wick sponsorship/coloring), would fans be less likely to complain that the Ganassi's and Penske's dominated? I think they might.

Going to a track and realizing that four cars have a realistic chance to win isn't going to bring people to the races. And while it's great when Graham Rahal or Tomas Scheckter are on or near the podium, does anyone really think they have a true chance to win?

Things were fine while Andretti-Green Racing fielded competitive and competent cars, but for whatever reason, their cars have not been as sharp as in previous years. When their cars are locked in, it brings the total of "winning" racecars to 8 - that's much better than 4.

While Danica Patrick has raced consistently well this season, I don't think anyone at Ganassi and/or Penske is truly worried about her during the race. And while Tony Kanaan may be one of the best drivers in the series, his cars have been junk since the Indianapolis 500. Hideki Mutoh has driven better since it was reported his sponsor may be leaving him, and fans are still waiting on Marco Andretti to deliver on his runner-up performance at the 500 in 2006.

So, since AGR hasn't figured out how to win (bad time to forget, especially with multiple sponsorship contracts coming up at the end of the year), someone has to step up. Panther has looked better with Wheldon, but they haven't won a race since 2005 (Texas). Dreyer & Reinboldt? Scheckter was competitive at Iowa, but it's doubtful. Coyne? Maybe on a road course.

Anyways, in terms of coverage, having three drivers - two of whom are nationally known and are former Indianapolis 500 champions (no offense to Briscoe, but he's not a household name like Dixon and Franchitti) - compete for a championship is a good thing (and if Castroneves re-enters the championship picture, all the better). And being able to have a championship come down to the last lap of the final race is fantastic - no other racing series can make that claim.

However, having 4 drivers dominate throughout 18 races may not be the best thing for the series, especially on the television side. After all, if I told you that either Castroneves, Briscoe, Dixon or Franchitti would win - would you tune in to see it? Especially if passing continues to be a problem? You probably wouldn't watch as much of the race as you ordinarily would, and that is a big problem for the race.

22 June 2009

Can Anyone Turn Left Properly?

The first half of the Iowa Corn Indy 250 was exciting to watch from some angles - how does Tomas Scheckter pass six cars in one lap, yet can't find a full-time ride (those answers may go hand-in-hand)? How many laps can Tony Kanaan run before needing to fuel? If Tony Kanaan didn't have bad luck, would he have any luck at all? How many different pit strategies will be employed during the race? And, how many people can forget to turn left?

As it turns out, seven cars of the 20 entrants wound up in accidents on the day, the last coming on Kanaan's crash on lap 109. Ironically, it was Kanaan who would have benefited the most from a yellow, as he would have gained the lap he had just lost on the field by staying out. Maybe he'll find his luck in Richmond, where he won last year.

Over the first 123 laps of the race, 48 were under yellow, creating a slow pace. However, the final 127 laps were contested under the green flag, allowing for some exciting side-by-side racing (though not nearly as exciting as earlier in the race, when Helio Castroneves clipped Scott Dixon's left rear, bringing out a yellow). Once Dario Franchitti got by Ryan Briscoe with 50 laps to go, it was all over, as the TomTom car pulled away to win by five seconds.

The good news for fans of the race is that Terry Angstadt confirmed that the Iowa race will be back on the 2010 schedule (an 18-race schedule, apparently, which is an increase of 1 race from 2009). The Newton, Iowa community does an excellent job filling the track and bringing in a road-racing type of atmosphere to the track, so rewarding them for their support of the IndyCar Series is a no-brainer.

Looking at the season points race, it is shaping up to be a four-driver fight, among the Penske and Ganassi stables. Briscoe leads Franchitti by three points, while Scott Dixon and Castroneves are 15 and 29 points behind, respectively. The crash at Iowa has all but ended Kanaan's attempt at a second IndyCar title (he's currently seventh, 79 points back), while Danica Patrick (fifth, 52 points back) and Dan Wheldon (sixth, 57 points back) theoretically could strike if the wheels fell off for the Penske and Ganassi cars (it might have to literally happen).

In any case, hats off to the folks of Iowa for putting on a good show, despite some tricky weather during the weekend.

12 June 2009

This Should Please Tony George's Sisters

If the true reason for telling Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George that he must reevaluate his commitments to IMS and the IndyCar Series was because of the Hulman-George family's concerns over money, then the news that Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive for A.J. Foyt Racing for the remainder of the season must be greeted with smiles.

Vision Racing, owned by Tony George, will now suspend operations for the No. 21 car immediately, which will save the team (and George family) money. Sponsorship for Hunter-Reay's car never developed, aside from Hunter-Reay's personal sponsorship from Izod. And after his podium performance at St. Petersberg, the team struggled, culminating in a lack of speed and crash at Indianapolis.

With Izod in tow, Hunter-Reay will join the iconic Foyt Racing Team and provide a permanent solution to the absence of Vitor Meira for the remainder of the season. Meira, for his part, hopes to be back for the season finale at Homestead.

Hunter-Reay pushes aside Paul Tracy, who drove at Milwaukee, and A.J. Foty IV, who drove at Texas. Born in Texas, Hunter-Reay will look to boost the performance of Foyt Racing, while leaving open the possibility of returning to Vision Racing in the future:

"We all have the big picture in mind for Vision's future, and that is not only to find our way to Victory Circle but for Vision to have a program that is capable of challenging for the championship. As competitive as the Indy Racing League is today, those goals require a strong commitment not only by the team but also by sponsors and partners.

"In the very short time I have been at Vision their efforts in developing sponsorship and B2B opportunities have yielded positive results which have laid a strong foundation we intend to build on. Knowing what I know today, I am optimistic of continuing with Vision in 2010 with a strong program."

Basically, two birds are killed with one stone here: first, Foyt gets a permanent solution for losing Meira. Second, Vision Racing saves money on a car that brought in no outside money and Tony George keeps the face of the IndyCar-Izod relationship in the IndyCar Series on a competitive team. The downside comes in the fact that the ICS loses one of its cars.

01 June 2009

They Should Have Called It The Speedy 225

To put the pace of the ABC Supply A.J. Foyt 225 in perspective, let it be known that I was at the Indianapolis Indians' game, working in the press box. The Indians game started at 2:03 p.m. ET, while Race #6 of the IndyCar season began at approximately 3:30 p.m. ET. However, the 225-mile race was over by the time the Indians game wrapped up at 5:37.

Completed in just 1 hour, 38 minutes and change, the A.J. Foyt 225 was the quickest in the race's history, averaging 138.784 miles per hour. With just 22 laps of cautions, those in attendance saw plenty of green flag racing an exciting action up front. And with Scott Dixon's win, they witnessed a new leader at the top of the IndyCar Series points standings.

Dixon ran away with the race after passing leader Ryan Briscoe on lap 200. He cruised to victory, beating Briscoe to the checkered flags by 2.1257 seconds, not too shabby considering that Briscoe led 154 of the 225 laps on the day. Still, Briscoe, the 2008 winner of the A.J. Foyt 225, stayed in the championship hunt, where he just 4 points from Dixon.

Two drivers took significant hits to their championship aspirations: Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Kanaan, my pick to win at Milwaukee, pulled off an impressive start to the race, ducking under Briscoe to nab first place on the opening lap. Driving with bruised ribs, Kanaan led the opening 25 laps before slowing back into the middle of the field.

After the first round of pit stops, Kanaan seemed to find his pace again, but under green flag stops around lap 127, Kanaan was forced back into the pits at lap 132, with smoke coming out from under his engine cover, an apparent fire forcing him to be lifted from the car. Still, Kanaan managed to deliver a solid quote, via his twitter page:
Dificult day for us. On fire but not the the right way to be on fire.
With a 27th at Indianapolis and a 19th in Milwaukee, the points leader entering Indy now sits seventh, 39 points behind Dixon and 17 behind teammate Danica Patrick for fourth. Without another run of finishes similar to or better that his first three (fifth, third, third), Kanaan will seemingly miss out on the championship chase.

As for Castroneves, he started last after crashing during qualifications. Saddled with a conservative setup, the three-time Indy champion fell a lap down midway through the race, eventually placing 11th, three laps off the pace. Still, the news isn't all bad for Castroneves, as he gets to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman Monday night.

So, what did we learn from Milwaukee? The cream is starting to rise to the top of the IndyCar Series, once again. The top three drivers (Dixon, Briscoe, Franchitti) are separated by 4 points, while the top seven drivers are withing 40 points of each other.

Should make for a fun summer and another entertaining show at Texas next week.