Thursday, June 30, 2016

IndyCar's triumphant return to Road America does not disappoint

Welcome back, Road America. We've missed you.

Last weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series returned to one of the greatest road courses around: Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. It's been nine years since the then-ChampCar Series visited the four-mile road circuit for a race. Really, it's been too, too long.

Open-wheel racing has been at RA since 1982, missing just one year during its run through 2007. For anyone that followed the Indy Racing League (why, I'm not sure), they haven't seen RA on the schedule since the early 1990s before the split.

It's been, 9 years
In 2008, the two open-wheel series merged back together as IndyCar. For some reason, I'm sure money related, Road America was left off the schedule. As the years went on, I gathered that part of the reason was because the schedule already held the Milwaukee mile oval track, and RA was just too close to run both. This made absolutely no sense though, since for years both tracks were on the schedule.

Team Penske paddock.
For the past few years, the IndyCar schedule was released without RA. This is why I would offer up my #BringBackRA hashtag every so often. It was frustrating because it's such a fan-favorite course, but the drivers love it, too. Some of the best drivers in the sport identify it as their favorite circuit.

If it sounds like I'm gushing over this place, that's because I probably am. Road America has a special place in my heart. Our family isn't the typical go-to-the-cabin type during the summer. We don't camp. Instead, our annual summer trip was a journey to Road America. We'd typically go for the Friday-Saturday-Sunday weekend, watching as much racing as we could.

This place has history, sentimental value
Our first visit was in 1990. We've also gone back for American LeMans races in the 2000s. The rain-filled race weekend in 1997 taught us to always be prepared race fans, bringing ponchos and extra tennis shoes with us on future trips. We ended up buying Andretti ponchos in '97 because the rain was just non-stop. We've seen plenty of crashes, spins, walked through the paddock and seen plenty of drivers during our RA tenure.

Anyway, when the series announced it would make a return to RA in 2016, the racing community went crazy with excitement. Me, too.

Juan Pablo Montoya after Canada Corner.
The vibe on Twitter, seeing the increase in race fans and hearing the driver interviews on TV, the consensus was pretty clear: Everyone was happy to be back. Funny thing is, I think only about half of the drivers have driven at the track before, since the hiatus was so long.

Back home again, at Road America
Friday, we could already tell that the attendance was up and rivaling the "good ol' days." We took in a couple practice sessions and walked the paddock. It's really the best day to take in the action from different spots around the 14-turn track and take photos. I just had my point-and-shoot camera but was able to get some nice shots in (cropping will help). We watched from Canada Corner and then later as they came up the hill in turn six.

One of the cool things was to see all the improvements at the track, including a few new vantage points to watch. There's a new path surrounding the before-and-after of Canada Corner (turn 12), plus the spot around turn six and then you can walk down and see the cars come through turn seven, too.

Saturday, it was more practice, paddock time and then qualifying. We watched from inside turn 14, which I don't think was open in previous years. That's when we saw the legendary Rick Mears, who works for Team Penske, watching the field. For qualifying, we saw team owner Bobby Rahal pull up before turn 12 along the new path to watch his son Graham Rahal. We didn't think we'd see an owner just hanging out around the track like that, but there he was.

Oh yeah, and the weather was perfect if you like sunny, summer days.

It's always fun to see the paddock where teams are working their magic on the race cars, always trying to make them better for qualifying and race day. Always be on the lookout for driver sightings, too. We spotted: Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Jack Hawksworth, Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal and also team owner (and former driver) Jimmy Vasser, who we stopped and talked with briefly. My dad had him autograph one of his racing photos, then got Bobby's signature later, too.

Sunday Funday Race Day
Race day, we set up our chairs in the inside of turn 14, so we could see the cars come through into the turn, then head up the huge hill to the main straightaway and the start-finish line. It's also sometimes nice to see which cars head into the pits. There was also a large videoboard in the corner, which really helps when it's a four-mile track. For reference, the cars take about a minute and 45 seconds to get around for one lap, give or take.
Will Power got off in the grass after turn six in practice.
Will Power had the pole and led all but four of the 50 laps, just because of when he came in for pit stops. He was pretty much untouchable as he drove to the win. He jumped out of the car in victory circle and was "stoked" to get the victory. Tony Kanaan finished second. If he would have had a few more push-to-passes left near the end, or if the race had a few more laps, he might have had a chance to overtake Power.

The race only had one yellow flag, with 11 laps to go that made for a fun final stint. Something broke on Conor Daly's car, sending him into the sand in turn one. It bunched everyone up for the restart and was an exciting finish. Pagenaud was running up front all day, until an engine problem had him fighting to keep the car going; he fell to 13th. Graham Rahal rounded out the podium in third.

The racing was even better as I re-watched it on the broadcast. Newgarden - who raced with an injured wrist and broken clavicle after his Texas crash - battled with Montoya. Good, clean racing. Scott Dixon was done just a few laps into the race with a mechanical problem. Castroneves got penalized for blocking and then didn't give up the position right away, because of course he did. He still finished 5th.

It was just a great race weekend all around. Power may have been stoked about his win, but the rest of the drivers, teams and fans were certainly stoked for the great show that was the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America.

See you in 2017, RA.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Thoughts from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grandstands

OK, I'll admit it. I wasn't immediately sure who won the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. 

Not because I wasn't paying attention to the race, or passed out from too much tailgating fun. It was more of a product of being at the race in person versus watching the TV broadcast at home. I promise you, this makes sense. 

The final few laps of the historic 100th running of the Indy 500, from my seat in the turn three grandstands, I saw Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Carlos Munoz contending for the lead. Then, based on their absence on the track plus the (far away and a tad small) video board, I saw those key players come into the pits. I guessed they needed some fuel to make it to the end; they probably hoped for a late yellow so they could duck in and fill up. 

With those guys in and the order shuffled, I wasn't sure who inherited the lead. Each car has a red electronic number on the side of the car, indicating its position. It's a little hard to see when there is 200+mph involved coming down the backstretch, but that's just me. 

And the winner is... rookie Rossi
Anyway, I saw the winning driver - Alexander Rossi - take the checkered flags via the video board. I still wasn't sure who it was because I couldn't even see the design of the car. It didn't help that his paint scheme was the only one in the field that was different on the spotter's guide. 

Winner Alexander Rossi takes his victory lap.
Once I started checking things on Twitter and learned that his Andretti Herta Autosport team took a fuel gamble and that he basically coasted to the finish line while running out of fuel, everything clicked. Again, just a difference between seeing the cars in person and watching on TV. 

If you think I'm advocating for staying home, you're mistaken. It doesn't do these racing machines justice to watch them on your screen, even in HD. I'm just going through how the finish of the race played out for me. 

Pit strategy is the way to win sometimes
It was a little anticlimactic, really. This race has had a few great finishes in recent years. Close finishes. Obviously, not every year can be like that. This was just another way that a driver can take victory lane. Rossi, a 24-year-old American rookie who raced in F1 previously, only led 14 of the 200 laps Sunday. He was the first one to complete 500 miles though, which is all that matters. 

Congrats to rookie Rossi and his team owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta. It was car No. 98 that won again. The late Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 in 2011, the 100th anniversary of the race. He also drover for Herta, a former IndyCar driver, in the 98 car. 

I saw some buzz online about people disliking the whole pit/fuel strategy determining the winner thing. I'm not on board with that. Pit strategy is part of racing. There are a lot of variables in play, like cautions, crashes, penalties and mechanical issues, that strategy is just one more element. Teams will often pit off-sequence with the rest of the field if they're back in the pack early on. Sometimes it works out where they'll grab the lead when other teams have to stop later. You just never know. 

Tailgating - really early in the a.m.
Traffic, tailgating and people
So, let me back up to the beginning of race day now. Indianapolis Motor Speedway was completely sold out. The place hasn't been that packed for at least 20 years, before The Split. No official attendance numbers are ever announced, but basically there were about 350,000 spectators there. That's a lot of people. 

In preparation for that mass entrance into the track, the family and I had a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call Sunday. For those that know what a huge night owl I am, this was tough to swallow. Worth it for the Indy 500 though. We stayed on the north side of Indy, the furthest out where we could get a room in the booked city. And we booked in January. 

Dad found a back-way route to get to the town of Speedway, and we only hit a little traffic just before we parked at a local high school, to the tune of $40. We were parked by 7:30 a.m., so check one thing off the list. Then it was tailgating time. Nothing like some cold beverages for breakfast.

We were still approximately 2.5 miles away so it was a good thing we brought our walking shoes. The security checkpoint to enter wasn't a big deal; lines were pretty short for the standard bag checks. We brought a small cooler with us, but it's amazing the big coolers and bags people bring - that they have to cram under their feet in the cramped bleachers. 

What a backdrop.
Pre-race fun and ceremony
Our seats were fairly high up in turn three, near where the grandstand cuts off along the backstretch. We had a good view (better if I was taller) of the cars coming out of turn two, down the straight, into turn three and the north chute. Plus, the stands were overwhelmingly crowded when you looked around to see all the people there and in the packed infield. 

Now, the race is also seen as a big party for many. Plenty of people go just because it's Indy and they can have a good time. Dad said it's almost like New Years Eve, "amateur hour." Evidence? Not long after we found our seats, a middle-aged guy holding a beverage tumbled down some of the bleachers, immediately stood up and raised his arms in victory. The early arrivers in the stands erupted in cheers as presumabley his wife went to check on him. Then the guy counted how many rows he fell down. 7! Wahoo! He was feeling no pain.

There was plenty of pre-race ceremonial items, including former Indy 500 champions riding in pace cars waving to the crowd. They came by fast and without any signs to identify them, but I saw Al Unser, his brother Bobby Unser, Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Dario Franchitti, Danny Sullivan. I know I'm forgetting some. 

Then there were the anthems, "Back Home Again in Indiana" (not the same without Gomer Pyle) and command for drivers to start their engines. A few parade and pace laps and it was time for the green flag. 

It's just the best
There's nothing like watching these cars fly down the track at 220, 230 mph, let me tell you. The sound, the speed. I can't duplicate it in words. 

The storybook guy and polesitter James Hinchcliffe was quickly passed by front-row starter Ryan Hunter-Reay. They battled and traded the lead at the start of the race, which was one of the most exciting parts of the day, in my opinion. 

It wasn't exactly a caution-filled race or a race filled with carnage, which was good. The yellow flags were spread out enough to have some fun restarts (when nobody in the grandstands sits down, by the way, which is a little annoying after a bit). Last year's winner Juan Pablo Montoya spun and hit the wall, landing him in a first-to-worst situation. Sage Karam spun and hit the wall, too. Veteran Buddy Lazier had car problems from the start. Takuma Sato, Mikhail Aleshin and Conor Daly all crashed out. 

There's always drama
One of the bigger disappointments of the day was when teammates Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell had contact on pit road after their stops, which effectively ended their chances. Bell left his pit box near his teammate and tried to move over to avoid him. But Bell clipped Helio Castroneves who was driving by on the outside lane. It was a shame for contender Hunter-Reay, who finished 24th. Bell, the TV broadcaster who also had a good car, finished 21st. 

A bit of controversy with the Indy 500 champ Castroneves. He was clipped from behind by JR Hildebrand, so he needed to come in and to fix the damage. Afterward, in true Helio-whiner fashion, he was outspoken to the media about Hildebrand, essentially blaming him for ruining his day. Hildebrand tried to apologize, but Helio wouldn't have it. I don't think Helio knows the phrase "That's racing."

Helio has a bit of an attitude problem, if you ask me. He often gives off this vibe with his comments that everyone else on the track should just get out of his way and let him pass because of who he is. I'm not a fan. Unlike a bunch of people in our grandstands, who let out some of the biggest cheers of the day when he took the lead. I'm sure a bunch of them really only know him from "Dancing with the Stars." 

Winners drink milk.
When we win, we drink milk
The victory-lane milk tradition dates back to 1936 when Louis Meyer wanted buttermilk after he won the race. It's a ceremonial tradition now, usually with a sip or two before splashing the bottle of milk all over the driver and team in victory lane. 

My brother and I were in the right place at the right time the night before the race, taking advantage of the hotel hot tub. Turns out, the woman who was in charge of handing the cold bottle of milk to the winner the next day was staying there. She had a bunch of Indy 500 milk bottle pins she was giving away and told us something about how she was involved with the milk for the winner. That lady was Janet Dague, a dairy farmer in Indiana, who was seen handing the bottle of milk to Rossi. 

There's my celebrity story for the trip. 

Anyway, it was a great experience to be in the stands for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. I feel very lucky and blessed that I could attend my third Indy 500 (2009, 2011, 2016). It was a great time with my family. If you ever get the chance to see IndyCars race in person, take advantage of it. You won't be disappointed.