Monday, July 30, 2018

Reflections on the 3M Championship in its final year

One of the first major events I ever covered in my sports writing career was the 3M Championship on the Senior PGA Tour located close to home in Blaine, Minn. First, I was a college-aged intern with the local newspaper in Blaine covering community events for the summer. Among the 5K runs and profiles on local high school athletes, I was sent to a pretty big stage for someone still learning the ropes of covering sports.

As with many things that early in a career, the 2007 and 2008 3M Championships were put right into the "good experience" pocket of my early journalism career. Now in 2018, it was recently made official that this year's event - which has been free to the public for many years - will be the last in order to make way for the PGA Tour event coming Fourth of July in 2019.

The 3M Open is down for a seven-year agreement for a tournament at the TPC course in Blaine.

I hadn't covered golf before, let alone a major event. I realized a lot of the day was spent in the air-conditioned media tent looking over the scores that were posted and keeping track of the leaders. Sometimes I'd venture across the way to the practice green or the first tee box, or more commonly see players finish off their rounds on the 18th green before the leaders headed over to the media tent for news conferences.

I took it in stride and tried to act like I knew exactly what I was doing, even though I soaked everything up and tried to learn like a sponge. Looking back on that first story I wrote for the Sun Focus, here are some of the things I recalled:

D.A. Weibring won in 2007 over Jay Haas with a 65-66-67--198. Weibring said after the win that he would donate $10,000 of his winnings to the 35W bridge collapse relief. Thirteen people were killed Aug. 1, 2007 when the 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

The 3M Championship has always been about giving back to charities as well. The tournament also provided more funding to the local Red Cross in response to the 35W bridge tragedy, above the money it already raised for local hospitals in the Twin Cities.

Fans get an up-close-and personal experience with the players, including legends of the game like Chi Chi Rodriguez and TPC golf course co-designer, the late Arnold Palmer. Other than the three-day tournament on the weekend, fans can come out to the course all week to see players hit the driving range and see other celebrities and athletes play in the pro-am.

The next year, I was back again and it was a different player with initials who won the event: R.W. Eaks with a 65-63-65--193.

The past few years, I've gone back as a spectator with my parents on one of the less-crowded days earlier in the week. We've walked around the course a bit, watching players tee off for the pro-am. If nothing else, it's fun to just get outside on a warm summer day and watch guys hit the ball better and farther than I could ever imagine.

It will be a little disappointing to see the casual nature of the senior PGA Tour go away with this event in exchange for the regular PGA Tour, but I'll definitely look back on the 3M Championship with fond memories as one of my first ventures in sports coverage.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Road America weekend, part two: Paddock and race day

Saturday practice was another relatively new spot, though we had been there the past couple of years. The inside of the track on the back side around The Kink is opened up with a paved path. It's one of the closest places fans can get to the track. Of course, debris fencing along the way doesn't make it an ideal photo spot, but it's great for taking some video as the cars speed down the straight at 180 mph. You're so close that the sound of the cars got to my ears just a tiny bit, which usually isn't the case with IndyCars.

In all the years at Road America, we've been through the paddock many times, usually two or three times a weekend. But we had never been around the pits during an active session. We started out the afternoon qualifying rounds standing at the exit to pit road, with just a concrete barrier and some fencing separating us from the track. It was cool to see the cars get set up in the pits, which cars went out for the first round, quick Twitter check to see who advanced to round two and then to see the cars speed by once they had been on track for a lap. I snapped a few photos of them going by, but it was total guesswork. It was like the cars appeared in a blur, with slanted wheels because of the high speeds.

You could also look down toward turn one and watch the cars from behind as they went into the corner. It's a cool perspective because, as Dad pointed out, you don't get to see the cars from behind very often. The TV broadcast always shows them from the front, which makes sense.

Qualifying and the paddock
Robert Wickens during qualifying.
 As the sessions went on, we ventured down along pit road behind the team stands to see which drivers were done and who was still going. This is where we had a lot of different driver sightings, too.

We saw plenty of drivers, team owners, etc. In no particular order: The three Andrettis (Mario, Michael, Marco), Ryan Hunter-Reay (and later his wife and two of his boys), Dario Franchitti, Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal, Jimmy Vasser, Josef Newgarden, Ed Jones, Graham Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon (and his wife Emma), pit reporter Robin Miller, Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot, Jordan King, Dad even spotted former CART driver Roberto Moreno in the pits.

I also spotted David Hobbs earlier in the weekend, so Dad went up to shake his hand and chat with him briefly. A cool moment for him.

Defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden ended up on the pole with a 1:43.2026 lap, which wasn't a surprise for Team Penske. It marked his third P1 award this season. Four cars dominated the weekend at Road America last year, starting 1-2-3-4 for Penske. Newgarden nearly won the race then, too, but Dixon made a restart pass that stuck for the lead and the eventual win.

This year though, Simon Pagenaud struggled and didn't advance to the second round. On a four-mile track, drivers commented how close and competitive the field was throughout the sessions. The margin of error is just so small. Penske teammate Will Power, this year's Indy 500 champion who won the 2016 IndyCar race at Road America from the pole, qualified second with a 1:43.2508. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, both Indy 500 winners and Andretti Autosport teammates, started third and fourth on the grid.

A great day for a race
When it came to race day, the weather was about perfect and much better than last year's cloudy, windy and cool conditions. It was a perfect summer day this time, with pure sunshine and some heat. We set up in some grandstands in turn five, along the outside more toward the hill. You can see the cars drop down into the slow corner, then head up the hill and under the bridge for turn six. Turn around, and you could see the cars on the other side of the track heading to turn 14. A small break in the trees allowed me to see the cars going up the hill toward the start/finish.

The field came through for a pace lap and then green flag racing. Turn five can be an action-filled corner since it's a good passing zone on the track. However, it was a day filled with clean racing. In fact, the yellow caution flag didn't fly at all during the entire 55-lap affair. Like Power in 2016, Newgarden won the race from the pole position, leading all but a couple laps during pit stops. He won by a 3.3759-second margin over runner-up Hunter-Reay.

Newgarden was in control the entire race, but the rest of the top cars were right there with him. After the first round of pit stops, it looked like Hunter-Reay had gained some ground on him. I thought for sure he'd be able to catch Newgarden and overtake him for the lead. But, then I remembered Newgarden drives a Penske machine, and his lead was maintained and increased throughout the race.

Sometimes it's nice to have at least one caution in order to bunch up the field and have an exciting restart with some passing. Though, it's hard to wish for that because "yellows breed yellows." It was just the ninth time an IndyCar race went caution-free at Road America and the first time since 2000. Without the slower laps, Newgarden set a race record in speed with a 132.101 average speed.

As always, Dixon was not to be overlooked. He was looking for his third victory of the season but still raced very well and moved up from his starting spot in eighth to achieve a podium finishing third. Power had a very short day on the track. He had a mechanical issue very early, tried to give it a go but ultimately parked the car behind the pit wall and finished in 23rd position. Rossi was in fourth until he was sidelined with suspension problems.

Dixon still holds the series points lead after this 10th race out of 17 this season with 393 points. Hunter-Reay, Rossi and Newgarden follow in the points battle.

Just like that, the race weekend was over. It's always a great time, and it always leaves you wanting more.

Read part one of the weekend:

Road America weekend, part one: Back at the track

Road America weekend, part one: Back at the track

Working in baseball, it's usually a pretty busy summer during the season. I try to balance things out with some relaxation and fun things on the off days. Then there's the annual trip to Road America to take a weekend off and enjoy some IndyCar racing. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a great tradition in my family that I love.

I think I've covered the history we have with Road America on my blog in the past so I won't get into those details. When the open-wheel racing series merged back together a few years ago, Road America was left off the season schedule. I hope the strong attendance numbers the past three years since IndyCar's return in 2016 are speaking volumes as to what a mistake it was to leave this four-mile road course off the calendar. It's a favorite among many drivers who've had the privilege to race on the permanent road course.

We did the usual travel plan, which includes driving over on Thursday and taking in racing activities for the next three days. Get tickets early and in advance, and it's just $100 for the weekend. The biggest crowds always arrive on Sunday for the main event, the 55-lap Kohler Grand Prix. Though Friday and Saturday crowds are typically lighter, I will say that just from the eyeball glance it seemed like more and more race fans are making the trek to Elkhart Lake for the race weekend.

Picture perfect weekend, pretty much
The weather is always a concern, and with a baseball season already filled with a blizzard, snow-out weekend, I wasn't sure what to expect. The good news is no raindrops fell. That's always the best news, and we like to think we contribute to that by coming prepared with umbrellas and carrying around ponchos. Racing will still go on with a little rain on a road course, but it's not exactly the best atmosphere.

Friday was probably the worst day, relatively speaking. It was cloudy (which is noted in most of my racing photos) and cool. I'm making good use of the Road America hoodie I bought a couple years ago; last year's race day wasn't exactly hot and humid either.

Finding new spots to watch
For the first practice session to see the IndyCars, we ventured to a new spot on the inside of turn one after the cars come flying in from the long main straightaway. That's one of the best things about Road America, all the different vantage points you can set up to take in the action. It's also why attending multiple days is such a good idea.

Anyway, Dad and I were trying to remember, and I think it used to be that the inside of turn one was off limits to fans. It's a grassy area with a fence separating fans from the track, keeping some distance between us. It's a good photo spot now because there is no debris fencing on the inside of the turn, allowing us to get some shots without focusing through chain-link. Part of the area in turn one is opened up for camping as well. (Just off the eyeball glance again, it seems like Road America has more camping areas than in previous decades if that's your thing. You could camp out and never leave the track the entire weekend.)

Graham Rahal in turn one.

I always love finding new spots to watch the cars at Road America, and it was clear in 2016 that they've made improvements and added access for fans. Practice is always a little interesting, especially if you're going to take photos. You're never sure which drivers are going to run laps right away, who are waiting or who might still be working on the car setup. It's different than racing, because the cars space out enough, for the most part, that they kind of come by one at a time.

I got adjusted with my point-and-shoot digital, took some photos with my phone as well, along with covering some of my social media bases. I also made sure to look over to the outside of turn one and recall A.J. Foyt's bad crash in 1990 where he nearly died.

Meeting the drivers
After practice, we went through the paddock area to get an up-close look at the cars. It's always worth the extra time, and another reason to spend multiple days at the track. Then, we actually went to wait in the autograph session line. We don't usually do that, but Dad really wanted to get Scott Dixon's autograph on a couple photos he's taken. You get lucky sometimes, running into drivers in the paddock. Of course, most of the time we aren't quick enough or don't have the desired photos with us when that happens.

As we waited, it turned out we were in a good spot, able to see the drivers speed down the hill on their scooters and arrive for the session. The drivers were split into two lines, so I also had a few photos I've taken that I got signed by the drivers, like Dixon, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan. We also got signatures from a driver making his IndyCar debut over the weekend, 21-year-old Alfonso Celis Jr., from Mexico.

We watched afternoon practice from another new spot, along the hill about where the Billy Mitchell bridge used to be before they took it out (the one Memo Gidley crunched into a few years back). After slowing way down at Canada Corner in turn 12, the cars pour on the speed up the hill and toward the final turn before making their way up to the start/finish line. Celis Jr. lost it just before turn 14 during the session, connecting hard with the tire barrier and causing some damage. Not a surprise to see from a rookie trying to feel out his new car and a new track.

Other than that, it ended up being a pretty clean weekend as far as damage and crashes were concerned.

Read part two of the weekend:

Road America weekend, part two: Paddock and race day