Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Dixon pushes past Penske for Road America victory

Scott Dixon coming out of turn five during Friday practice.
The term "upset" is used quite a bit in sports. Usually though, it's not used much in IndyCar racing. I think the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday at Road America could qualify as an upset. Scott Dixon won the 55-lap race with a turn-one pass on a restart to take the lead for good and add another track to his winning career.

Dixon, the IndyCar Series points leader (now up 34 points) who walked away from a scary-looking crash in the Indy 500, came into the weekend having never led a lap at the sprawling four-mile road course in rural Elkhart Lake, Wis. Perhaps it's not too surprising when you consider that IndyCar stupidly left Road America off its schedule for a few years, returning just last season. I've never heard a race track praised more by drivers than Road America, except maybe the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Everybody loves it.

The victory was also Dixon's first this season and No. 41 in his career. He's now won an IndyCar race in each of the past 13th seasons, extending his series record.

So why was it an upset? Well, the weekend was dominated by the four Team Penske cars (a good showing for their boss, Roger, who was not at the track for the weekend). In qualifying, it was Team Penske in the Fast Six, along with Dixon and Detroit-doubleheader winner Graham Rahal. Penske had been quick all weekend in their Chevrolet engines, and it just seemed like they'd dominate. They started 1-2-3-4 with Helio Castroneves, 42, earning his 50th pole.

Penske with the strong start 
It was unseasonably chilly, cloudy and windy on race day. Castroneves led the field to the green flag, with everyone sailing through turn one in one piece. That's always a victory in itself, to get through the first corner and then first lap without a yellow flag flying.

Castroneves led 24 laps before Josef Newgarden took the lead from his teammate. Then there was the first caution of the day. As Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato spun on the back part of the course, the field bunched up with Newgarden leading Dixon. The difference here might have been the tire strategy. Newgarden was on the primary black Firestones, while Dixon with his Honda-powered car had the softer alternates/reds. Wasting no time, Dixon took the lead from Newgarden with a pass in turn one on lap 31 of 55.

From there, Dixon widened his gap considerably the next few laps. A longer caution came out near the end of the race, but Dixon held on using his push-to-pass seconds wisely to hold off Newgarden. Castroneves rounded out the podium, followed by the rest of Team Penske with Simon Pagenaud and last year's winner, Will Power. Dixon's teammate Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones (making a very strong case for Rookie of the Year), Rahal, Max Chilton and Mikhail Aleshin rounded out the top 10.

The race that almost wasn't
Dixon won a race that his team wasn't sure he'd be able to run after Sunday's morning warm-up. He only ran one lap and dealt with fuel pressure issues. Whatever was wrong with the car, his Chip Ganassi Racing Team obviously got it all fixed up by the start of the race.

Then he went out and dominated in the last 24 laps, leaving Penske behind. That's where the upset comes in.

Still, Dixon is no stranger to victory. He races with one of the elite teams in the series, is a 2008 Indy 500 champion, former series champion and has 40 other race victories. He's also the eighth driver to win in 10 races this season, showing what a competitive field IndyCar boasts.

It's pretty cool to think about the past month or so for Dixon. From winning the pole for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, to getting robbed later that same night in Indy, hitting the inside wall and destroying his car during the race, then winning everybody's favorite road course.

There's a reason he's nicknamed the Ice Man.

On race day, watching from inside turn 14.

Other Road America tidbits:
-Visa problems for Aleshin. Russian driver for Schmidt-Peterson, Aleshin, had visa problems trying to get back into the United States after his stint in France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So, teammate James Hinchcliffe's buddy Robert Wickens filled in on Friday, driving the No. 7 car in two practice sessions. Aleshin arrived in time for Saturday morning practice, qualifying and a top-10 finish Sunday.

-Driver sightings. It's always fun to roam the paddock and see drivers and team owners, plus take a look at crews working on the cars. Here's who we saw this year: Will Power, Jame Hinchcliffe boarding his scooter, Conor Daly sitting in the team hospitality area, Helio Castroneves probably right before or after he helped a couple with their marriage proposal, retired driver/broadcaster Paul Tracy driving a golf cart toward the paddock, team owner Dale Coyne (Dad wished him "good luck," which he needed after his team's expensive crashes lately), Ryan Hunter-Reay (twice), Charlie Kimball dining at the Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake Friday evening, Takuma Sato, retired driver/team owner Bryan Herta, former IndyCar driver Max Papis and Carlos Munoz.

Tony Kanaan's 1998 rookie card
-Tony Kanaan's weekend. It's the 20th IndyCar season for Tony Kanaan, one of the series veterans along with Castroneves. Saturday, we saw him in the paddock, and he came over to sign one of my dad's photogrpahs he took of Kanaan on track. I pulled out the 1998 racing card for Kanaan, since I save all that time-capsule stuff. He signed it as well saying, "That's an old one!" Kanaan didn't have a great weekend, failing to get into the second group of qualifying, then connecting with Alexander Rossi and hitting the wall around the Kink.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Photo blog: Road America 2017

It's funny how many photos you take in the digital age. It used to be so easy to cruise through a roll of film taking photos of IndyCars at Road America. Now, you just fill up memory cards and internal phone storage.

It was a great weekend at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. for the Kohler Grand Prix festivities. We spent three days at the track, watching practice and qualifying sessions from different vantage points. So, I compiled a few of the better photos below (no cropping or editing to these). 

Cars on the track facing/driving toward the right are coming out of turn 12/Canada Corner. Cars facing left are headed up the hill after coming out of turn five. There are a couple bonus photos of the paddock as well. Thanks for viewing some of my photos! 

Mikhail Aleshin

Josef Newgarden

James Hinchcliffe

Scott Dixon

Tony Kanaan

Graham Rahal

Carlos Munoz

Alexander Rossi

Max Chilton (No. 8 car) slows out of turn five and lets his teammate Scott Dixon pass.

Simon Pagenaud

Team Penske paddock

Will Power

James Hinchcliffe

Tony Kanaan

Selfie: Road America start/finish line and flagstand.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Back again at Road America

Graham Rahal coming out of Canada Corner in 2016. 
Summers in Minnesota are known for cabin time. Folks pack up the family truckster for the weekend, sit in traffic with everybody else heading north to "get away from it all." Then, it's a weekend of lake frolicking, campfires and small-town living.

Or so I assume.

We've never been a cabin (or camping, for that matter) family. For us, the summer tradition was the annual trek to Road America, the four-mile race track in the small town of Elkhart Lake, Wis. My first trip there was when I was just a youngster in 1990. We only missed a couple years of IndyCar, Trans Am and other racing support series for the next couple decades.

It doesn't sound that exciting or glamorous when someone (particularly non-race fans) asks where you're headed on your extended-weekend vacation. "Elkhart Lake, Road America." Blank stare. "It's near Sheboygan... we're staying in Manitowoc." It doesn't sound like much, but it's a great time and totally worth it.

Here's where I insert my repetitive preaching line where I tell you that IndyCars need to be experienced in person. Television does not do the sights or the sounds justice.

Road America is a 14-turn, four-mile road course with various elevation changes, straightaways and passing areas. It's been a racing tradition since 1955 and attracts race fans from around the Midwest and beyond. Fans can view the racing action from various points around the course. There's no assigned seating like at many oval tracks. Fans can drive around the area on pathways around the course, surrounded by acres of grass. Bleachers and benches are scattered around at various vantage points, including turn one, the start/finish line, turn 12 (known as Canada Corner) and the carousel. You can even camp out in the designated camping area for the weekend.

It's also a great place to see drivers up close in the paddock. There's been some years when we've spotted nearly the entire field of drivers during our roaming around through the pit area. It's also a chance to see the mechanics work on the cars.

After the IndyCar split in the mid-90s, Road America was a destination for the CART and Champ Car series. Once they merged together with the Indy Racing League as IndyCar again in 2008, Road America was dropped from the schedule until last year. It was a big mistake in the eyes of loyal fans and plenty of drivers who name Road America as their favorite race track. Of course, I realize things like money and sponsorship are involved in these decisions.

Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2016 at Road America.

IndyCar returned last year to booming crowds of deprived fans. It was a picture-perfect weekend for weather - sun, not too humid, not a drop of rain. Penske driver Will Power won the race from the pole, leading all but four laps. It was a lot of green flag racing, which is always nice.

I'm back again this year for the Kohler Grand Prix, to see a beautiful track that's brought so many great memories. Like 20 years ago when the soggy weekend caught us off guard. We bought Andretti team ponchos. Ever since, we always pack ponchos, umbrellas and extra tennis shoes in case things get muddy. Always be prepared, race fans.

I'm excited to hear the cars again, to make my best attempts at taking photos with my point-and-shoot camera and enjoy the time with my mom and dad.

It's also nice to use the hashtag #RoadtoRA instead of #BringBackRA.