Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My love for IndyCar racing

Generally when I talk about my love for sports and what I enjoy watching, I don't talk about IndyCar racing. Sounds pretty normal, right? Except I'm a big IndyCar fan.

Before I go any further, let me try to clarify what kind of racing I'm talking about (Those readers that are race fans, you can probably relate to this very-real struggle.). Because really, there are a lot of folks that have no idea. No judgment, they just don't. This is the IndyCar Series. Not NASCAR. I repeat, not NASCAR.

The best way to help non-race fans understand is to mention the Indianapolis 500. I used to be able to say "open-wheel racing," and most people would catch on to the type of cars I meant. But as the years have gone by, and IndyCar's popularity has gone downhill (thanks a lot, IRL/CART split), I get a lot more blank stares.

NASCARs are the ones that kind of look like regular cars. Except with decals for headlights. True story. IndyCars look cool. That's a very scientific explanation, I know. Anyway, the wheels are open from the car's "tub," where the driver sits. They also have front and rear wings on them.

I hope that helps explain the differences a little bit. If you're still confused, there's always the Google machine. Or

My racing history goes way back 
I've been exposed to the auto racing world pretty much my whole life, thanks to my dad. He's been a fan since he was about 5 years old. Back in the days when he listened to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio and watched the great race on TV when it was tape delayed instead of live on national TV.

There's a home video of me from the early 90s at a Wisconsin road course watching the cars fly by down a straightaway. I apparently knew enough about it to recognize what I thought was Emerson Fittipaldi's car going by, because I proudly spoke his nickname, "Emmo!" on camera.

In Minnesota, a lot of families have cabins or lake homes where they spend their summers. For us, we took summer race trips. Traveling to a beautiful four-mile road course, Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wis. was an annual tradition. Believe me, this track is the furthest thing from the common idea that racing is "cars going around in a circle." That's NASCAR.

Nothing like visiting the tracks 
We attended the Indy 500 in 2009 and 2011. It's the greatest spectacle in racing for a reason, just so you know. We've watched races on the streets of Long Beach, the oval in Iowa, on Cleveland airport runways along Erie's shore, in the country of Mid-Ohio and last year watched the inaugural Grand Prix of Indy on the road course at Indianapolis.

Yes, Indy is more than just four turns. Did you know there's also a golf course in the infield?

One other point here. As much as I love television, it does not do car racing justice. There's nothing like seeing those cars in person, hearing the engines, taking in the atmosphere of the sport.

So, what do I love about it all so much? It's a few things. The look of the open-wheel cars (and the way the designs have changed over the years), choosing favorite drivers to root for, walking through the paddock/pits area where you can see the cars and often drivers milling around.

Again, racing is so much more than cars going round and round. There's a lot of strategy that goes into it. I don't understand all the technology of it, but teams are always looking for ways to make the car turn faster laps. Then there's the fuel game during a race. Does a team owner want his driver in the back of the field to pit off-sequence from the other drivers, in hopes of taking the lead during a caution period? Of course, there's all the passing for position on the track, too.

Penalties have also come into play the past few seasons. There's a speed limit on pit road, which drivers can hit with the push of a button, but speeding violations result in a drive-through penalty if you don't get on the button quick enough before pit entrance. Drivers can also get called for blocking on the track. Those are probably the two most common penalties.

Famous names
If you're thinking, "I still don't know anything having to do with racing," you might want to think again. Quite a few celebrities "at the very least dabbled in racing," according to my dad.

Before his reign as a late night talk show host, David Letterman was a part of the Indy 500 broadcast. Seriously. As my dad remembers it, Letterman was working at a local station in Indianapolis in 1971, and he was pulled in for the broadcast. He was misidentified by Jim McKay, actually.

In recent years, Letterman is part owner for an IndyCar team. He usually has the Indy 500 winners on his show. I'll miss that when he retires.

He's not the only famous person to have a brush with racing. How about this one for all you reality TV buffs out there: Bruce Jenner (who remember, was an Olympic athlete). He raced briefly in the 1980s and was also a pit reporter as part of the broadcast team.

Here are some others that tried their hand at becoming race drivers (thanks, Dad); maybe you've heard of them: Actor Steve McQueen, actor James Garner, actor Craig T. Nelson, actor Paul Newman, actor Tim Allen, musician Walter Payton, actor Patrick Dempsey, actor Frankie Muniz, musician Andrew Ridgeley, actor Jason Priestley and musician Christopher Cross.

Racing has been a part of the big screen, too. I'm not talking about "Ricky Bobby," either. Check out "Senna," "Rush" or "Driven." That last one isn't exactly the most realistic, but a lot of it is based on IndyCar at the time. "Senna" is a great documentary about one of the most storied Formula 1 drivers ever, Ayrton Senna, of Brazil.

Father-daughter bond
I think what I like most about racing is that it draws a deep connection between my dad and me. He's got loads of video tapes with old races and his own video of countless practices, qualifying sessions and races. It's great to have something that we can watch together and talk about.

Dad and me at Mid-Ohio in 2010.
I love hearing different stories and vivid memories he has from years ago. About this driver or that driver, the details of a tragic crash from 40 years ago, which owners or broadcasters used to race and what their career was like.

During a race in 1999, I was at home watching when driver Greg Moore was killed in a crash. Dad, who of course taped the race, was out for the afternoon. When he got home, I remember breaking the news to him that Moore died.

That's the tough part of the sport, but nevertheless it was a memory that for some reason stuck with me.

Dad and I have taken a couple trips together, just him and me, to races over the years. It's a blast. At the Indy GP last year, we watched one of the first sessions on the track before race day. In between track activities, we enjoyed a couple of beers together before noon. Because when you're on vacation at one of the greatest race tracks in the world, why not?

I love my dad for many reasons, but racing is definitely something that has created a great bond between us. Without him, I wouldn't be the racing fan that I am today.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A look back at tourney madness

High school state tournament time is done for another year. What am I supposed to do with myself now? Just kidding, sort of.

It's been a fun month or so covering sports. There was girls' and boys' hockey, adapted floor hockey, girls' basketball, boys' swimming, the Frozen Faceoff, a feature on the senior class from the Gophers women's hockey team and of course, the Wild versus Ottawa. Not a bad way to spend my time, watching and writing.

Here are a few of the highlights:

I wrote a feature story on Maddie Rooney, a senior goaltender with Andover. Playing on the boys' team. This was one of those stories that developed pretty easily. Not many girls play on the boys' high school hockey team, after all. So it was really about finding out why she made the decision to switch in her senior year, how she's improved and what she's learned.

Overtime excitement in section hockey
Breck boys' hockey celebrates a section championship.

Did I ever get lucky with a couple of the section hockey games I covered. The Minnetonka girls beat Wayzata in overtime to move on to state. The really cool thing about this game was on the game clock. The Skippers scored with 5:26 left in regulation to tie the game at 2. Then they scored 5:26 into the extra session for the section final win.

How often does something like that happen? Once I realized it, the story lede was right there in front of me. As I wrote, the time 5:26 must be lucky for Minnetonka. Or it should be after that game anyway.

Then a couple weeks later there was the overtime thriller between Breck and Delano for the section championship. This game needed nearly two overtime periods to decide a winner. Breck came away with a 3-2 win. But the most exciting part started with a few minutes left in the third. That's when Delano tied the game, which was scoreless for two periods, at 1 goal apiece. Breck went ahead, then Delano tied it again with 37.5 seconds left.

The sequence had the packed arena on their feet with a roller coaster of cheers.

I left both games with that surge of writing adrenaline that only newsies can relate to. It felt great to cover such exciting games, write up the compelling stories and even make deadline. It's a rush, I tell ya.

On to the X
Then it was time for some girls' hockey at the Xcel Energy Center. I'll spare you my thoughts on where this tournament should be held. Whatever your opinion is, the fact remains that attendance for this tournament is not even in the same ballpark as the boys' tournament. The girls play to a nearly-empty arena.

Anyway, the first game was a complete blowout, as powerhouse Blake beat Hutchinson 9-0. The game reached running time as the Bears outshot their opponent 42-3. Not exactly a competitive contest in the quarterfinals. Thief River Falls denied Blake a third consecutive state title, however.

The boys' tournament was a really fun experience. Fans from all over pack the building, and this year a new attendance record was set for the tournament. When it comes to youth hockey, Minnesota owns its State of Hockey title.

I'd say probably the biggest game of the tournament was the Class 2A semifinals when Duluth East upset Edina. The Hounds scored three unanswered goals to put themselves into the final, though they lost to Lakeville North as it completed its undefeated season.

With 3.7 seconds left in the game with Edina and East, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered, most definitely appreciative of the effort from the Hounds. I heard someone say something like: The hockey tournament. Where outstate schools hate the metro, and the metro hates Edina. A few people told me after this game that they were happy to see two-time defending champion Edina go down. People just love underdogs sometimes.

Oh, and favorite quote of the tournament? When the always-colorful Hermantown coach Bruce Plante talked about his "ulcer juices" during a tight 2-0 semifinal win.

A good variety

After hockey finished up, I covered boys' swimming, which unfortunately gets overshadowed by hockey. The swimming finals fall on championship Saturday. It's too bad, because swimming is fun to watch. When you see kids closing the gap on an opponent in the next lane, and see the enthusiastic cheering from fans and teammates, it's pretty cool.

I also covered adapted floor hockey, which was fun to watch. Those kids have a ton of fun playing, almost as much fun as their fans in the bleachers do cheering them on.

The final high school tournament was girls' basketball, which finished up over the weekend. I covered a Class 1A quarterfinal with undefeated Ada-Borup and Springfield. It was a good game early on, but Ada-Borup pulled away and then capped their perfect season with a state title.

So, there you have it. My summary of coverage for the past month. And I had a blast.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sports writing keeps me going

I can add “cover a Minnesota Wild game” to the list of things I have accomplished. Not that a physical list actually exists, but if it did, this would be on there.

A couple weeks ago, I had a very exciting and busy week. March 3, I covered the Wild vs. Ottawa Senators game for Minnesota Hockey Magazine. Yeah, it was pretty much a blast and a half. It helped that the Wild won 3-2 in a shootout.

From the team standpoint, the game was special for a couple reasons. It was the first game since the Wild acquired a couple players just before the NHL trade deadline the day before. They got Chris Stewart, who’s already proven to help out with the “tough guy” role on the team, and fan-favorite Jordan Leopold, a Minnesota product who played for the Gophers.

Leopold’s return home drew attention, but the bigger star was his daughter, Jordyn, for her letter she wrote addressing the Wild coaches. The letter was for a school assignment and ultimately had nothing to do with her dad’s trade to Minnesota. But it went viral on social media as everyone ate up the feel-good story of a daughter asking for her daddy to be close to home.

Watching the boys
Anyway, those storylines aside, I just sat back in the Xcel Energy Center press box and enjoyed the view during the game. Young defenseman Matt Dumba scored twice for his first multi-goal game, and goalie Devan Dubnyk set a franchise record for the Wild as he started his 21st consecutive game.

After the game, I joined the herd of reporters and headed downstairs for the postgame interviews. That part went quickly and was kind of a blur. I did my best to be part of the huddle around players like Zach Parise, Dubnyk, Leopold and Dumba. I think I asked Dumba about the possibility of getting a hat trick that night, since he had plenty of time in the game to get one.

Then it was off to another room to wait for coach Mike Yeo’s presser. I sat back and scribbled my notes, trying, as always, to listen for some of the best quotes to use with my story. I went back up to the press box to file my story. The zamboni had finished and the lights were low when I left.

What a fun night.

Wild skating vs. the Senators.

On to The Tourney
I briefly thought about finding a corner and sleeping at the X. I returned less than 12 hours later for the start of the best high school state tournament in the country: The boys’ hockey tourney.

Each year, I look forward to watching The Tourney, usually on TV. I've attended a couple games here and there the past few years, but this was the first time I've been there to cover it as a reporter. The state should really just shut down for four days so everyone can do nothing but watch hockey. Sounds like a good plan, right?

The atmosphere was amazing. What other high school tournament brings out so many fans that don't have a school in the fight? I know there are lots of people that attend part of The Tourney every year no matter who's playing. They come for the love of hockey. That's pretty awesome.

Setting attendance records
This tournament in particular was well attended. It set an all-time tournament record, drawing more than 135,000 people throughout the four-day, two-class tournament. That broke the record of 129,643 set in 2008. During Friday's Class 1A semifinals, they even opened up the upper bowl seats early in the first game. I heard that just doesn't happen.

Hermantown coach Bruce Plante and his players after the semis.

Anyway, I covered the Class 1A afternoon quarterfinals, semifinals and the first Class 2A semifinal. I had a 14-hour day Friday, but it flew by and I loved it. Yes, time really does fly when you're having fun.

I loved watching hockey, I loved meeting a few new people and I loved writing about the games.