Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Safety improvements make a difference in IndyCar

Twenty-one years ago, IndyCar driver Scott Brayton crashed into the wall at turn two at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a practice session for the Indy 500. His crash was a fatal one.

Two years ago, driver James Hinchcliffe crashed into the wall at Indy after a piece of suspension broke on his car. He nearly bled to death but survived and came back to win the pole position for the 100th running of the Indy 500 last year.

On pole day of this year's qualifying, Sebastien Bourdais appeared to get loose heading out of a turn and crashed into the outside wall during qualifying with speeds in the 220 mph range. His crash was reminiscent of Hinchcliffe right away, which was why seeing his hand go up to open his helmet visor as he car slowed was a good sign.

Bourdais also survived the heavy hit, sustaining multiple fractures to his pelvis and right thigh. He underwent successful surgery last Saturday night.

So, what's changed since Brayton's fatal crash a couple decades ago? The most important thing: SAFER Barriers. From what I know as a follower of the sport, I would say the SAFER Barrier saved Bourdais' life this weekend. More on that later.

Obviously, the main concern here is safety, so it's a big relief that Bourdais is alright. He was already up and around on crutches at the speedway. Crashes like that are tough to see for anyone who watches the sport. It's not something you really get used to at all.

Shifting to Bourdais' race season though, it's a shame he wasn't able to race in the 500. He's come back with a full-time ride with the Dale Coyne Racing team this year and got off to a great start. He came from the last position in St. Petersburg to win the first race of the season.

Bourdais is a back-to-back-to-back-to-back Champ Car champion (2004-07) before IndyCar merged back together a few years ago. He raced for the Newman-Haas team and simply dominated.

The risk of injury and death are part of the gig for race car drivers. From what I've observed and heard, it's something drivers realize and know they take the risk each time they step into the car. But, they also have to keep those emotions at bay once they hit the track. They're in the car because it's what they love to do.

Dixon has a scary moment of his own 
That brings me to the major crash during the Indy 500 this year. Jay Howard, participating in an IndyCar race for the first time since 2011, got high on the track and collided with the wall. As his car slid down the track (after he hit the SAFER Barrier which again did its job), a passing Scott Dixon had nowhere to go. The cars touched, sending Dixon high into the air before his car came back to earth with the inside wall and debris fencing.

Dixon hopped out of the car and walked away. He later returned to the track medical center and left in a walking boot for an ankle injury. That's it. Even his interview for the ABC broadcast was calm, cool and collected, which is typical for the guy known as "Iceman." He called it a "wild ride."

The crash looked awful. Casual viewers and veteran race fans were relieved to see Dixon walk away from the crash. For those that don't regularly watch the sport, I think they were also amazed to see it wasn't a fatal incident.

Safety shines again
It's a tribute to the safety of these cars in 2017. A few decades ago, we could be talking about a fatal crash. There's no doubt Dixon got lucky, too. The way a driver impacts can make all the difference in the world. If his helmet slams against that guardrail, I think this is a very different outcome.

The race was red-flagged to clean up the debris - Dixon's back half of the car was destroyed - and repair some of the fence. All the clutter on the track is actually a good thing, in a way. It means the car did its job to project the driver in the tub - or the Dallara chassis safety cell. The car is supposed to come apart like that when it makes the impact.

Dixon's car hit the inside-wall SAFER barrier. SAFER stands for Steel And Foam Energy Reduction. The foam barrier mounted to a steel skeleton combines to absorb energy from crashes, helping to reduce the forces transferred to the driver and the rest of the car. The SAFER Barrier first appeared 15 years ago at the Indy speedway before being installed at other oval tracks.

Anyway, I wanted to share my perspective as someone who's watched auto racing for a long time and seen plenty of crashes. Watching some of the old Indy 500s on ESPN Classic last week, it really is extraordinary to see how far open-wheel racing has come in terms of safety improvements.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Indy 500: The field of 33 in 2017

It's the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. For those die-hard race fans out there, it's the most exciting day of the year. Last year's sold-out spectacle delivered a beautiful day and a win for an American rookie, Alexander Rossi.

As I started putting the list together of the starting grid this year, I realized just how much I'd like to write about everyone. Each driver has his or her own story, and everyone wants to win the 500. There are seven former winners in the field and five rookies. Some have had plenty of heartbreak at Indy (Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand, Takuma Sato, to name a few).

The lone woman in this year's field is Pippa Mann, starting 40 years after Janet Guthrie became the first woman to ever run in the Indy 500. It's also 25 years since Lyn St. James won Rookie of the Year honors at Indy in the famous 1992 race.

Here's the starting grid. I went a little in depth with the first three rows, since past winners have more often than not started near the front. A winner hasn't come from the front row in a few years now, but historically being up front at the start is helpful. Forty-two winners started in row one, 18 in row two and then just eight in row three.

Happy Indy 500!

Row 1 

Scott Dixon - No. 9 
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2008

Dixon, known as the "Ice Man" for his cool, calm and collected nature, is the polesitter with the fastest average speed during qualifying in 21 years at 232.164. He's a former Indycar Series champion and really should have multiple Indy 500 wins under his belt already. Team Ganassi should never be counted out. I wouldn't be surprised to see Dixon lead a good chunk of the race and go on to the victory. He won from the pole in 2008; the last Indy 500 winner to win from the pole was Helio Castroneves in 2009.

Ed Carpenter - No. 20 
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Past Indy 500 poles: 2013 and 2014

The local boy from Indiana, Carpenter is a team owner and only drives on ovals. He's always started well at Indy, with this year as no exception. Carpenter is still looking for his first Indy 500 win.

Alexander Rossi - No. 98
Team: Andretti Herta Autosport
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2016

Rossi cemented his name into history last year by winning the biggest race in years. A fuel gamble paid off and he finished the yard of bricks first, taking the checkered for the 100th running of the historic race. Rossi finds himself on the front row looking to be the first repeat Indy winner since Castroneves in 2001-02.

Row 2

Takuma Sato - No. 26
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda

Sato is with Andretti Autosport for the first time this year. His most notable memory from the Indy 500 is battling with Dario Franchitti for the lead going into turn one of the last lap in 2012. They touched and Sato went into the wall while Franchitti won his third 500. Sato's only IndyCar victory was in 2013 at Long Beach, a street course.

Fernando Alonso (rookie) - No. 29
Team: McLaren-Honda-Andretti
Engine: Honda

Alonso is running his first Indianapolis 500, so he's technically a rookie. But he's no stranger to racing. He's a former Formula 1 champion with plenty of race wins under his belt in open-wheel. He's made the biggest headline splash for this 500, giving up driving in F1's Monaco Grand Prix in order to run Indy. Many eyes will be on him to see how he runs the race. He's also a favorite, especially with his qualifying effort.

JR Hildebrand - No. 21
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Best Indy 500 finish: Second, in 2011

His history at Indy is probably a memory he'd like to forget. Sure, his best finish was second, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He led coming out of turn four on the final lap of the 2011 race. He decided to go around a lapped car, however, got too high on the track and hit the wall. The victory went to Dan Wheldon, in what was his last victory ever as he was killed later that season in a crash in Las Vegas oval.

Row 3

Tony Kanaan - No. 10
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2013
Past Indy 500 polesitter: 2005

Kanaan is definitely one of the veterans on the IndyCar circuit. After a lot of years of tough finishes and heartbreak, Kanaan finally broke through to drink the milk four years ago. It was an emotional victory for him, from what I remember. He's long been a fan favorite, and that hasn't changed this year.

Marco Andretti - No. 27
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Best Indy 500 finish: Second, 2006

This may be one of Marco's best shots at winning the race that has given his family such bad luck over the years. He's trying to buck the Andretti Curse and get just the second victory as a driver with the last name Andretti. His grandfather Mario won the race in 1969. His father - now team owner - Michael led lap after lap at Indy over the years but found some of the worst luck and never won as a driver. Marco made it into the Fast Nine in qualifying and has shown good speed all month. He's had his fair share of good finishes over the years, including five top-fives, but he'd like to erase the runner-up finish in his rookie season when he was passed at the line by Sam Hornish Jr.

Will Power - No. 12
Team: Penske
Engine: Chevy
2014 IndyCar Series champion

Power isn't known for his success on ovals. He has 30 IndyCar victories to his name, passing one of the greatest to ever drive for Roger Penske: Rick Mears. The glaring difference between Power and Mears is that Mears is part of the four-timers club for Indy 500 winners. Power is seeking his first Indy 500 win. Perennial-power (no pun intended) Team Penske didn't qualify well, leaving Power the only driver of five to make the Fast Nine. He might have the best shot, though you can never count Penske cars out at Indy.

Row 4

No. 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014 Indy 500 winner)
No. 19 Ed Jones (rookie)
No. 16 Oriol Servia

Row 5

No. 7 Mikhail Aleshin
No. 15 Graham Rahal
No. 8 Max Chilton

Row 6

No. 83 Charlie Kimball
No. 5 James Hinchcliffe (2016 polesitter after a near-fatal 2015 Indy crash in practice)
No. 22 Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015 Indy 500 winner)

Row 7

No. 3 Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009 Indy 500 winner.)
No. 77 Jay Howard
No. 24 Sage Karam

Row 8

No. 2 Josef Newgarden
No. 1 Simon Pagenaud
No. 14 Carlos Munoz

Row 9

No. 88 Gabby Chaves
No. 4 Conor Daly
No. 50 Jack Harvey (rookie)

Row 10

No. 63 Pippa Mann
No. 11 Spencer Pigot
No. 44 Buddy Lazier (1996 Indy 500 winner)

Row 11

No. 17 Sebastian Saavedra
No. 40 Zach Veach (rookie)
No. 18 James Davison (replacing the injured Sebastien Bourdais)

2017 would be a good time to see the Andretti Curse cease

Marco Andretti practicing for the Indy Grand Prix in 2014.
I'm going on the record right now: This is the year the Andretti Curse is broken at the Indianapolis 500.

Yes, I'm talking about third-generation driver Marco Andretti winning the biggest IndyCar race in the world. It would break a curse that's existed since his grandfather Mario won his only 500 back in 1969. Marco's dad, Michael Andretti, never won as a driver, though he's been to victory lane as a team owner as recently as last year for the 100th running of the race with driver Alexander Rossi.

Marco's rookie season was back in 2006 as a 19-year-old. He nearly won the 500 on his first try. He and his dad both led during the race. Marco had the race in his grasp through the last lap and even out of turn four. But Sam Hornish Jr. was close enough to make a move, getting around him just before the yard of bricks for the victory. It was one of the closest 500s in history at a 0.0635 margin.

"Second's nothing," Marco said on the broadcast after the race.

Marco's bad luck continues the curse 
With that, it appeared the Andretti Curse was still alive and well for another generation. Marco did well in 2007 for a while, but the race was disrupted by rain and he eventually crashed out.

The luck continued in 2009 when he and Mario Moraes collected each other in the first green-flag turn of the race. There's a common saying in racing that you can't win the race in the first turn, but you sure can lose it.

Marco definitely hasn't had the same run of winning success that both his father and grandfather had in open-wheel racing. Whether it's a difference in ability or just the different environment of racing these days (perhaps with the dominance of Team Penske and Team Ganassi) I'm not really sure. Marco also races for his dad's team, and I'm sure he feels the pressure of the Andretti name.

Indy experience without the trip to victory lane 
This year will be Marco's 12th Indy 500. He has seven top-10 finishes and five in the top-five. He best finish was the runner-up his rookie season in 2006. Of course, drivers will tell you that unless you win at Indy, it really doesn't matter where you finish.

Overall, Marco has just two IndyCar wins to his name: 2006 Sonoma and 2011 Iowa. Like most drivers, the race they most want to win is the Indy 500. It's like a talented player in any other sport getting all kinds of successful recognition but never winning a championship. I'm sure Marco would love to celebrate a win at Indy with his team, father and grandpa.

Michael's side of the curse 
Mario and Michael raced many years together (other branches of the family tree dabbled in the Ind 500, too), and it's a shame there's only one Indy win between them. Michael led the most laps at Indy without ever getting a victory. They had their fair share of crashes, bad luck and mechanical problems. The famous 1992 race - 25 years ago now - seemed to be Michael's. He had a strong day, but his car betrayed him with 11 laps to go.

Michael retired and became a team owner. He's won four Indy 500s as an owner, the first in 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon. I caught that broadcast this week on ESPN Classic, as they traditionally run classic 500s in he week leading up to the big race.

Brent Musburger said on the broadcast that the Andretti Curse was broken with that win. I'm not sure if that's the general consensus. The fact that no one named Andretti has won as a driver since 1969 is what's really striking and means the curse is still around. Don't forget, Michael came out of retirement to compete in the 500 again, in 2006 and 2007.

Some of the best drivers of Mario's era have multiple 500 wins, something everyone thought Mario would have, too. AJ Foyt, 82, Al Unser, 77, and Rick Mears, 65, all have four wins apiece. Al's brother Bobby had three wins.

If there's a year for it, might as well be now 
So, why am I all-in on Marco? Fair question, since he hasn't dominated as a driver. But in 2017, why not? Think about the other champions that have been crowned within the last year. The Chicago Cubs put together a remarkable season, got to the World Series for the first time since 1945, then came back from being down three games to one to win it for the first tie in 108 years. Breaking the ultimate sports curse.

The New England Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl this year. They didn't bust a curse or anything, but still.

I'm generally not big on predictions. Although, whenever we're at a race, Dad always asks who we pick to win. Anything can happen over the course of a 500-mile race on Memorial Day weekend. Nobody knows that better than the Andrettis. (Go back and watch the final laps of the 2006 race and pay attention to Mario on pit lane if you don't believe me.)

A bad pit stop, penalty, crash or just bad luck can doom a race. Even a bad starting position doesn't bode well - historically winners have started from the first two rows - 60 times out of 100 races.

It'd be great to keep the string of great storylines going in sports with a Marco Andretti win in the Indy 500, shattering the family curse at the storied speedway.