Saturday, May 25, 2019

Indy 500: The field of 33 in 2019

Time for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. Time sure flies; it feels like we just celebrated the 100th running in 2016.

I may have gone a little overboard here, but I've outlined the entire starting grid for the field of 33 drivers, which includes rookies, past winners and IndyCar champions. Like each of the past two years, there is just one woman in the race this year.

It's also the first year that NBC will broadcast the race, a partnership that made sense with the already-involved NBCSN. Before this year, ABC has always broadcast the Indy 500, so we'll see what changes might be in store, if any.

I didn't touch on every single driver below, though I covered most and tried to incorporate some tidbits about the race history with starting/finishing positions.

Happy Indy 500!

Row 1 

Simon Pagenaud - No. 22
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet

Pagenaud is the first Frenchman to win the pole in exactly a century when Rene Thomas started first. For a while during the Fast Nine, it looked like Ed Carpenter was going to lock up his second consecutive Indy 500 pole and fourth overall. That was until Pagenaud turned in a four-lap average of 229.992 mph to take the top spot. He won the IndyCar Series title in 2016, but he went winless for Penske last season. He made a masterful run to catch and pass Scott Dixon in the closing laps of the IndyCar Grand Prix earlier this month, getting him back on the winning track and in search of a clean sweep on May.

Ed Carpenter - No. 20
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevrolet
Past Indy 500 poles: 2013, 2014, 2018

Before a qualifying run from Pagenaud in the Fast Nine, it looked like it could be an all-Carpenter Racing front row for the 500. There's just something about the speedway that agrees with the team, as it always seems to find the speed. Carpenter, in particular, has had success, which you could label as home-track advantage. The veteran driver and team owner only drives on ovals. He's still looking for his first Indy 500 win.

Spencer Pigot - No. 21
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevrolet

It's Pigot's fourth season with the team and second as a full-time driver. He made his Indy 500 debut in 2016 and started out as the team's road and street course driver. His best finish was back in 18th, so he's already put himself in a great position to win. He was born on Sept. 29, so that's cool. ;-)

Row 2

Ed Jones - No. 63
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevrolet

Jones is riding the solid work of the Carpenter Racing team. He'll race in his third Indy 500, just missing out on the front row after his previous best start was in 11th position. He crashed out of last year's race.

Colton Herta - No. 88
Team: Harding Steinbrenner Racing
Engine: Honda
Rookie, won the Freedom 100 in Indy Lights in 2018

Herta will drive the highest-qualifying Honda machine and try to make history as the youngest winner of the Indy 500. He turned 19 on March 30. He's already the youngest driver to win an IndyCar race after he took first at Circuit of the Americas this spring, just before he turned 19.

Will Power - No. 12
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet
Past Indy 500 wins: 2018

Power is the defending Indy 500 champion. The last driver to win back-to-back 500s is Power's former full-time teammate, Helio Castroneves. Power bucked the trend of his unsuccessful runs on oval tracks when he won last year.

Row 3

Sebastien Bourdais - No. 18
Team: Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan
Engine: Honda
Best Indy 500 finish: Seventh

Bourdais tore it up in ChampCar, winning titles and races. He's still going strong in IndyCar, and came back from a horrifying crash in Indy 500 qualifying in 2017. He's led just four laps in the big race.

Josef Newgarden - No. 2 
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet
Best Indy 500 finish: Third

With his teammate Pagenaud on the pole, and his other teammate Power having won last year, Newgarden might be feeling some pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) to win this race. Heck, everybody wants to win. But Newgarden, the 2017 series champion, has won plenty of other races for one of the series' best teams, and he'd like to check off the biggest race in the world.

Alexander Rossi - No. 27
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 wins: 2016

Rossi won the race as a rookie in one of the most memorable Indy 500s - the 100th running in 2016. A fuel gamble paid off, and he ended up in victory lane. He's only led 37 laps at Indy in three races.

Row 4

No. 98 Marco Andretti (runner-up in 2006 as a rookie)
No. 25 Conor Daly (improved on his previous best starting position of 22nd)
No. 3 Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009 Indy 500 winner; 4-time Indy 500 polesitter; running his 18th Indy 500)

As one of the most successful veterans in the race, Castroneves holds the lead in many Indy 500 categories among the active drivers. He's run the most laps (3,399) in the most races (18) and led 305 laps in 12 races. Only twice has his car not been running at the end of the race. Since the 2010 race, he's been on the hunt (and has gotten close) for his fourth Indy 500 victory, which would join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Marco would be one of the best storybook victories if he could pull it off. As has been mentioned throughout the month, it was 50 years ago in 1969 when his grandfather, Mario, won the Indy 500. Marco's father and team owner, Michael, still holds the record for the most laps led at Indy for someone who never won the race. Marco nearly won in 2006 as a rookie before Sam Hornish Jr. passed him just before the yard of bricks. Marco has eight top-10 finishes in 13 Indy 500s.

Daly, who's without a full-time IndyCar ride this season, makes his best Indy 500 start in his sixth attempt. He'll look to improve on his best finish of 21st.

Row 5

No. 7 Marcus Ericsson (rookie)
No. 30 Takuma Sato (2017 Indy 500 winner)
No. 33 James Davison (running his 5th Indy 500)

Ericsson, from Sweden, is a rookie in IndyCar and the 500, but he's no rookie when it comes to racing. He spent the past five seasons in Formula 1.

Sato crashed late in the race as he tried to make a pass for the lead and inside hit the wall in the 2012 Indy 500; Dario Franchitti won his third that year. Sato became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500 in 2017, the 101st running of the event.

Row 6

No. 14 Tony Kanaan (2013 Indy 500 winner; 2005 Indy 500 polesitter; running his 17th Indy 500)
No. 15 Graham Rahal (father/team owner Bobby Rahal won the Indy 500 in 1986)
No. 9 Scott Dixon (2008 Indy 500 winner; 2018 IndyCar Series Champion; 3-time Indy 500 polesitter in 2008, 2015, 2017)

After many years of bad luck, fan-favorite Kanaan finally got his Indy 500 victory six years ago. The Brazilian races for four-time winner A.J. Foyt's team and is one of the veterans on the grid. The only active driver to have raced in more Indy 500s is Castroneves. Kanaan has led in 14 of his Indy 500s, more than any other driver in the 2019 field, good for a total of 355 laps led. He's turned 2,952 laps in the 500.

Dixon has started in the top 10 in 10 of his 16 Indy 500s, including three times on the pole. He didn't make the Fast Nine in qualifying, so the defending IndyCar champion is in a bit of uncharted territory. However, you can never count out the guy known as "Ice Man." He nearly ran away with a victory at the IndyCar Grand Prix this year before Pagenaud caught up to him. Dixon has 11 top-10 finishes in the 500 and has led in 11 races with 439 laps led, more than any other driver in this field. Dixon is one of the best drivers in IndyCar history, but can he finally get his second Indy 500 win? It's been more than a decade since he hit victory lane.

Rahal has three top-10 finishes in his 11 starts as he tries to join his team owner and father, Bobby, as an Indy 500 champ.

Row 7

No. 77 Oriol Servia (2 top-10 finishes; running his 10th Indy 500)
No. 23 Charlie Kimball (best Indy 500 finish: third)
No. 48 JR Hildebrand (finished second in 2011)

JR Hildebrand, starting in his ninth 500, is connected to one of the most memorable finishes in recent years. He had the lead on the final lap in 2011 and looked well on his way to sipping the milk. But as he came out of the last turn, he tried to go around a lapped car, only to get too high and crash into the outside wall. As his car skidded along, Dan Wheldon was there to capitalize and take the checkered flag for his second Indy 500 victory. But Wheldon was not able to defend his title; he was killed in the season finale in Las Vegas.

Servia is one of the veteran drivers. He's had a lengthy career in ChampCar and then IndyCar when the series merged back together. His first Indy 500 was in 2002 (when Herta was a toddler).

Row 8

No. 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014 Indy 500 winner)
No. 19 Santino Ferrucci (rookie)
No. 4 Matheus Leist (finished the Indy 500 13th in his rookie season)

Sure, Hunter-Reay would probably like to be starting further up on the grid. But remember that when he won in 2014, he started in row seven. He was just the sixth winner to come out of that row and first since 1987. However, only two drivers have won from row eight, and you have to go back to 1935 to find the last one: Kelly Petillo started 22nd, the same place Hunter-Reay will start on Sunday.

Leist, the 20-year-old Brazilian, is fresh off his best IndyCar finish in his second year in the series. He took fourth at the IndyCar Grand Prix earlier this month on the speedway's road course.

Row 9 

No. 60 Jack Harvey (running his 3rd Indy 500)
No. 42 Jordan King (rookie)
No. 81 Ben Hanley (rookie)

This row is filled with three Brits. King is an Indy 500 rookie, but he has a few years of racing experience under his belt, including last season in IndyCar. With Ed Carpenter still racing ovals, King would usually take over for road-course duties.

The Manchester, England native Hanley found some speed as a first-year driver with a first-year team to get into the race without being on the bubble or in the Last Row Shootout.

Harvey makes his best start in 25th position for his third Indy 500. His best finish is 16th.

Row 10 

No. 26 Zach Veach (running his 3rd Indy 500)
No. 10 Felix Rosenqvist (rookie)
No. 39 Pippa Mann (only woman in the field)

It wasn't long ago that there were multiple women - four, actually - in the race. Danica Patrick is the most famous, retiring after the Indy 500 last year. As it turned out, Patrick was the only woman in the race last year, after Pippa was bumped. As a one-car, one-off team coming to Indy every year, you had to feel for Pippa. But 2019 has been a time for smiles. There was no doubt she made it, when she landed in the last position (30th) on the first qualifying day. She was in and didn't even have to worry about getting bumped out. Pippa will race in her 7th Indy 500, with her best finish being 17th. She's turned 1,032 laps in her Indy 500 career.

Rosenqvist is also a rookie at Indy, but he's competed in all kinds of racing from Formula E to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Row 11

No. 24 Sage Karam (best Indy 500 finish: 9th)
No. 5 James Hinchcliffe (2016 Indy 500 polesitter; failed to qualify for the 2018 field)
No. 32 Kyle Kaiser (bumped Fernando Alonso from the field in the Last Row Shootout; running his 2nd Indy 500)

No driver has ever won the Indianapolis 500 when starting from row 11. With the new qualifying format this year and the Last Row Shootout, these three were just happy to make the field. They were the three that made it out of six drivers last Sunday. It would have been devastating for Hinchcliffe had he missed the race for a second consecutive year. He's had quite the roller coaster at Indy the past few years, from a crash that nearly killed him, to winning the pole and then missing out last year.

Kaiser was the final car to make the field this year, bumping F1 champ Alonso. It's a true underdog story. Kaiser has fewer laps run in the Indy 500 than any other driver on the starting grid this year (110); he finished 29th last year after a mechanical issue ended his day a little early.

Other storylines and tidbits: 
  • The three oldest drivers in the field are all 44 years old: Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Oriol Servia. Kanaan is the only one of the three who's still in IndyCar with a full-time ride. 
  • Simon Pagenaud will look to become the 21st driver to win the race from the pole position. The last time that happened? Castroneves with his third win in 2009 and Dixon a year prior. 
  • There are seven Indy 500 champions in this year's race: Castroneves, Rossi, Sato, Power, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Dixon. Castroneves is the only one who's won the race more than once. 
  • In the past 10 years, the winner has come out of the front row three times (2009, 2010, 2018). However, though the winner has traditionally come from the first three starting positions - a total of 43 times - it's been more of a less predictable, mixed bag the past few years. It was row two in 2011 and 2017, row four in 2013, 2016, row five in 2015, row six in 2012 and row 7 in 2014. 
  • Only six winners out of 102 races have come from as far back as rows 8-10. The last time it happened? 1974 when Johnny Rutherford won it from the 25th position in the ninth row.

Friday, May 24, 2019

1969: The lone Andretti (driver) win at the Indy 500

The 1969 Indy 500 winner, driven by Mario Andretti.
Mario Andretti started on the front row for the 53rd running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1969. He was the first car to cross the yard of bricks after 500 miles to earn his first Indy 500 victory. At 29 years old in his fifth Indy 500, it seemed like it would be the first of many wins for Mario.

Fifty years later, he's the only driver named Andretti to win the storied race.

It just doesn't seem right, really. With Mario and later his sons Michael and Jeff, nephew John and grandson Marco all strapping into a race car, one would think the victories would pile up for the family. While there was plenty of racing success, especially for Mario and Michael, it just didn't seem to happen at Indy. Their bad luck developed into what's commonly called the Andretti Curse.

Mario first ran at Indy in 1965, finishing third to take Rookie of the Year honors. He won the pole in 1966 and 1967 before finishing in the last and 33rd position in 1968.

According to, Mario had this to say: "When I won it, it was only the second race that I finished there. I dominated more than once. I could have had won it so easily in 1966 and ’67 because I had the car so quick. I was getting really frustrated, wondering what it was going to take. So when I crossed the finish line to win in ’69, it was like a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I thought, ‘At least I’ve got that under my belt, and now we move on.’”

Even in 1969, it's not like the win came easy for Mario. He had to compete in a backup car after he crashed his Lotus-Ford in practice, leaving his face burned up, with burns that were visible on race day. Mario wasn't able to beat A.J. Foyt for the pole but managed to qualify second with an average speed of 169.851 mph in his the Brawner Hawk backup car. Mario started in the middle of the front row in between Foyt and Bobby Unser on the outside.

Perhaps it wasn't significant at the time, but that's a stacked front row of racing legends. Foyt became the first four-time Indy 500 winner, and Bobby won the race three times. They didn't have to contend with another legend, Bobby's brother Al Unser. Al was fast in practice but didn't race that year. He fell and broke his ankle while going motorcycle riding in the speedway's infield.

Before the race, the starting front row drivers pose for a traditional photo shoot with their cars on the front stretch of the track. Maybe this was common knowledge, but I didn't find this out until recently: Mario wasn't in the photo. There was still a guy who looked like Mario but without the facial burns. It was his twin brother, Aldo. I think it was mentioned in a recent Racer Magazine story I read, and Mario mentioned it on the NBCSN documentary, "Drive Like Andretti."

At the drop of the green flag on race day, Friday, May 30, 1969, Mario jumped into the early lead. He surrendered the lead to Foyt within a few laps following some water temperature issues with the Brawner Hawk. Foyt had engine trouble and spent a significant amount of time in the pits, effectively putting him out of contention for the win. Lloyd Ruby led the race at the halfway point, but his own bad luck reared its head when he pulled away from a pit stop with his fuel hose still attached. The tear in his car's fuel tank ended his day and put some good fortune Mario's way.

Mario was all alone in the lead and raced around the 2.5-mile oval for the final 95 laps to earn his first - and what turned out to be his only - Indianapolis 500 victory. He led a total of 116 laps and set a race record finishing at 156.867 mph. Dan Gurney and Bobby Unser finished behind him.

One of the most iconic - yes, iconic - scenes in victory lane at the Indianapolis 500 came with Mario and his car owner, Andy Granatelli. It's been shown over and over in various Indy 500 video montages over the years. After Mario had climbed out of the car, Granatelli grabbed Mario and planted a big, wet kiss on his cheek. At least Mario was able to get a swig of milk first.

The story goes that the kiss from Granatelli is what started the Andretti Curse. Granatelli had his own previous bad luck at the speedway, so perhaps he was passing that along to the Andretti clan. The curse, for those who believe, has been lessened in the past few years as Mario's son and IndyCar team owner, Michael Andretti, has won the big race as an owner after having never won from the driver's seat.

One of the biggest joys for the Andretti family could come in the form of an Indy 500 victory for Mario's grandson and Michael's son, Marco, come Sunday in the 103rd running of the race. What a cool storybook ending to a 50-year chapter that would be for the Mario and his family.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Round-number Indy 500 anniversaries

In sports, like with other things, anniversaries or milestones are celebrated with round numbers. Fifty years, 200 games, 1,000 hits. It gives people the opportunity to reflect and remember, even if the round number is simply a round number.

That said, I figured I'd take a look at the round-number anniversaries when it comes to the Indianapolis 500 this year. It's 2019, the 103rd running the great race. The biggest milestone being talked about is the 1969 Indy 500, Mario Andretti's lone win 50 years ago. I'm definitely touching on Mario and 1969 on some other blog posts, so stay tuned.

The other big years that followed - 40 years ago, 30, 20 and 10 - also have great stories, too. Let's go down memory lane a bit.

Rick Mears is one of three drivers in the four-timers club when it comes to Indy 500 victories, along with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser. During qualifying for the 1979 Indy 500, Tom Sneva was looking to win the pole for the third straight year, something no one had ever done before. Sneva had provisional with an average speed of 192.998 mph. But it was Mears who bumped him from the top spot to win the pole, going 194.847 mph for Team Penske.

That's about 2 mph difference between two drivers for the pole. To compare, there's about 2 mph difference from the 2019 polesitter and the drivers who were bumped from the field. That's how close things are now.

It was Sneva and Al Unser joining Mears in the front row, and Unser took off at the drop of the green flag and led 85 of the first 100 laps, only giving others a chance on pit stops. Unser was driving a new car in that race, a Cosworth-powered Chaparral nicknamed the "yellow submarine" because of the paint scheme. His new car let him down on lap 105, however, as smoke came out of the rear of the car.

His brother Bobby Unser took over, with Foyt and Mears close behind. Mears took the lead on lap 182 when Bobby had to drop out of the race. This certainly wasn't a case of Mears being dominant all day. He capitalized on others' misfortunes and had to drive a clean race. He led just six laps before taking the lead in the final stretch. The young Mears had to keep Indy 500 champion Foyt at bay. Foyt's car also let him down though.

With a late restart on lap 196, the 27-year-old Mears had just a few laps left to maintain his lead, which was aided by lapped traffic in between him and second-place Foyt. The veteran driver didn't get a good jump on the restart, and his car slowed and crawled to the finish line thank to engine trouble. Foyt still took runner-up honors.

It was the first of four Indy 500 victories for Mears, three of which would come from the pole position (a race record).

This goes to show you how long ago this race actually was, because not only was it the first Indy 500 win for Mears, it was just the second for team owner Roger Penske. The Penske name has become synonymous with success throughout the past few decades. He's won with drivers like Al Unser Jr., Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr. and Will Power. Penske driver Simon Pagenaud will start on the pole this year, the 18th pole for Team Penkse.

The Rookie of the Year award in 1979 went to a guy with a great racing name, Howdy Holmes, who took seventh place.

It's not one of the closest finishes in Indy 500 history, but it's certainly one of the most exciting ones. And really, had the result been different, fans might not have been treated to such emotion in victory lane three years later from Al Unser Jr. when he choked back tears as he said "You just don't know what Indy means" after he won what still holds up as the closest finish in Indy 500 history.

Emerson Fittipaldi qualified third to start on the outside of row one, reaching 222.329 mph. The average qualifying speed for the field of 33 reached 216.533 mph to mark the fastest field in Indy 500 history to date. Fittipaldi jumped to the lead on the first lap of the race, setting an opening-lap record with 209.200 mph, 7 mph faster than the record Michael Andretti set in 1986.

Fittipaldi led for much of the way and was aided by Mears and Michael Andretti dropping out of the race thanks to engine problems. Unser Jr. was second and got closer after he stayed out instead of pitting late in the race to get more fuel. Lil Al chased down Fittipaldi and grabbed the lead with five laps to go on a move on the inside along the backstretch.

With 1.5 laps to go, the two leaders came across lapped traffic on the backstretch. Fittipaldi was on the inside of the track, with Unser Jr. diving down as well to get by another car. They ran side-by-side into turn three when they touched wheels, sending Lil Al's car into the outside wall. Fittipaldi continued on, eventually taking the checkered/yellow flags to win his first Indy 500.

Once Lil Al was out of his car, he walked up the track onto the apron on the final lap, wanting to salute Fittipaldi in some way as he drove by on his way to victory. Luckily, he kept it PG with what many saw as a sarcastic clap-and-thumbs-up gesture.

Fittipaldi found the finish line first after he came in second in the 1988 race won by Mears. He's also one of the few drivers to win both a Formula 1 championship and the Indianapolis 500. Unser Jr. still finished second, as he and Fittipaldi were six laps ahead of the rest of the field. If both cars would have crashed with the contact, it would have been the first time since the 1912 race that a driver would have had to unlap himself in order to pass the crashed leading car for the victory. Fittipaldi also became the first Indy 500 driver to win $1 million in prize money.

Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. are each down in history as two-time Indy 500 winners, with Fittipaldi also winning in 1993 and Lil Al winning in 1992 and 1994 before both failed to make the field in 1995, the final year before the dreaded CART/IRL split.

I'll make this one really simple. This was during the CART/IRL split years, aka a time when my dad and I didn't pay much attention to Indy since we were CART fans. Kenny Brack won the race. That is all. Brack ended up in CART, so I have nothing against him. I'm just a firm believer that split is something from which open-wheel racing will never totally recover.

For the past 10 years, we've had to hear about whether Helio Castroneves will become the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner. We'll hear it again for the 2019 race. That's because Castroneves won in 2009, giving him his third victory after he won back-to-back in 2001 and 2002, which is also the last time there's been a back-to-back winner of the race.

If any of you pay attention to my racing Tweets, you might have seen me point to Castroneves with an asterisk or refer to him as a two-time winner. That's because of the controversy surrounding the 2002 race. I'm Team Paul Tracy on that one; Tracy made a pass for the lead late in the race around the same time a crash occurred resulting in a caution flag. The ruling was that he didn't complete the pass in time, so the lead and eventual win went back to Castroneves.

The 2009 race, marking the start of the Centennial Era, was also my first Indy 500 that I attended. I'd been there to see the museum and for other events like a Formula 1 race, but this marked my first 500 in the stands. We had seats on the main straightaway behind pit wall. Again, here's another plug to put it on your bucket list to go see the greatest spectacle in racing in person. It's worth it.

Castroneves jumped the start, so officials waved off the first green flag. Once it finally went green, Mario Morales and Marco Andretti crashed into the wall in turn one. Remember kids, you can't win the race in the first corner, but you can certainly lose it in the first corner.

We some saw action along the main straight. Ryan Hunter-Reay crashed in turn four, with his car coming to a halt right in front of us. Graham Rahal left some tire marks on the outside wall as he skidded down the main drag.

Castroneves dominated as Team Penske often does, leading from lap 142 until the finish. He became the ninth driver to win the race three times and was the first non-American driver to do so. This came at the height of his popularity after winning that ABC show "Dancing with the Stars," so at the very least maybe the event got some more publicity out of his win. Castroneves and his crew climbed the fence along the start/finish line in celebration. He was nicknamed Spiderman for his celebrations.

His victory a decade ago was the 20th time a driver won the from the pole position. He's also the last driver that's done it. Winners over the past 10 years have come from a variety of starting positions, including all the way back in row seven.

Castroneves is no longer an IndyCar Series regular, but he's still an entry for the Indy 500. The 44-year-old will start on the outside of row four in 12th position this Sunday.

Information in this post is credited to Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500 Second Edition by Donald Davidson and Rick Shaffer and 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Success is all relative: A look back at St. Thomas football before and during the Caruso era

Play action from the Tommie-Johnnie game in 2011.
They should have won the game. For those that want to be salty about it, the Tommies were robbed. At the 1-yard line with a minute to play, running back Ben Wartman was handed the football and tried to break his way toward the goal line through the pile of players up the middle, looking to break the plane for a touchdown. It looked like he made it.

But the officials didn't call it that way. 

Wartman was ruled down just short of the goal line on a score that would have given the Tommies the lead in the first rivalry game under head coach Glenn Caruso against St. John's on Oct. 18, 2008, at O'Shaughnessy Stadium. On the next play, at second down and inches, the handoff from the Tommies failed to connect and St. John's recovered the fumble with 19 seconds left on the clock to seal their 12-9 victory.

Photos released after the game clearly showed Wartman had reached the endzone, according to an Oct. 31, 2008 edition of The Aquin, the St. Thomas student newspaper.

"After watching the film with [the head of officials], it was clear it was not only discouraging the call was missed, but that there was no conference between the officials to discuss [the play]," Caruso told The Aquin.

That Tommie-Johnnie rivalry game during my senior year was probably one of the most exciting football games during my years as an undergraduate at St. Thomas, and the squad didn't even win. It was their best chance though. 

The Tommies came off a 2-8 season in which they started 0-4 for the first time since 1969, didn't win a game at home and ended the season with the resignation of their head coach Don Roney. The 2007 football team lost 51-34 at St. John's, allowed 30-or-more points in seven of the eight losses and turned the ball over 31 times over the eight losses. Roney finished his 10 seasons with a 54-44 overall record, 52-32 in the MIAC. 

During my time at St. Thomas, the football team went 19-20, going a combined 0-8 against St. John's and St. Olaf. Attending a football game wasn't a top priority for a lot of students on campus, because let's be real, everybody loves a winner. Even those students that attended often made a mass exodus somewhere around halftime. Maybe homework seemed like a better option. 

Playoffs weren't on the radar, let alone competing for a national championship. There was no big radio deal with WCCO; that came later in 2011. The phrases "move up to DII or DI" weren't in the vocabulary when discussing St. Thomas football. 

Well, what a difference a decade and a new coach can make. 

One of my Aquin stories from 2007.
After Roney resigned on Nov. 13, 2007, Glenn Caruso was named to the head coach position the following January, hired at 33 years old by then-St. Thomas Athletic Director Steve Fritz, who retired as the AD at the end of 2018-19. Caruso is the 29th St. Thomas football coach and was chosen after a national search. Known for rebuilding programs, he came from down the street at Macalester College, where he inherited a program that went 0-9 and coached them to 2-7 and 4-5 records. He also helped to rebuild programs at North Dakota State and South Dakota.

The turnaround, once he arrived further west on Summit Avenue, was pretty immediate. It started with Caruso defeating Macalester in his first game on the St. Thomas side of the field with a 35-10 home victory. The 2008 Tommies finished with a 7-3 record, notching five more wins than the year's previous squad.

"The No. 1 thing that we want to do is we want to make sure that we change the culture around here and the attitude and the mentality that football is once again a dominant force on campus," Caruso told me before his first season with the Tommies, in an interview during my time as a student reporter on campus.

Though the word "culture" can often be seen as a cringe-worthy buzzword by some, Caruso certainly got the campus excited about football again. Seminarians were regulars at the games, "Caruso's Crew." There's now a victory bell and victory song. Right away, Caruso started a QB Club at the local watering hole, Plum's Neighborhood Bar and Grill, as an informal film session for an hour to discuss the previous and upcoming games with anyone from the public wishing to attend.

"The biggest thing we were looking for is somebody who really could kind of take this campus by storm," Fritz said.

Again, mission accomplished. 

Through 2018, Caruso carries a 118-19 record at St. Thomas, going 78-10 in the MIAC. St. Thomas had won a total of 97 games in the previous 17 seasons before Caruso arrived. To compare, he's won 118 games in his first 11 seasons under his "pride and passion" reign with the Tommies. They even went 10-0 with three perfect regular seasons from 2010-12. Twice he's led the Tommies to the Division III national championship game, the Stagg Bowl, with losses to the powerhouse Mount Union in 2012 (28-10) and 2015 (49-35).

When the Tommies won the MIAC championship in 2010 during Caruso's third season, it was the first time St. Thomas could claim that honor since 1990. The Tommies defeated St. John's 20-17 in a game played at Target Field in September 2017 with 37,535 fans in attendance. The two rivals also have plans to play on Oct. 19 at the new Allianz Field.

The Tommies ring the victory bell after a 2011 win over SJU.
So yes, there has been plenty of success for St. Thomas football under Caruso. They've dominated teams. They've become so good that there's a battle cry for them to "move up," which isn't as easy as fans think. 

But here's what I say: The success is all relative. St. Thomas helped found the MIAC 99 years ago, and the major dominance from the football team has come in the past decade. That's not that long.

That's why it seems so ridiculous about what's potentially, or even likely, to happen later this month. As reported by the Star Tribune last month, there's an effort among the St. Thomas MIAC rivals to expel the school from the conference. Nine votes would be needed out of the 13 schools in the MIAC. First, though, they'd have to change the league bylaws, since the only reasons on the books to expel a school at the moment included unethical or illegal behavior. That right there should tell you how absurd this is.

Any decisions regarding the issue were postponed at an April meeting, though the vote could happen later this month. If the vote is successful in ousting St. Thomas, the school would be out of the MIAC after the 2020-21 school year.

No one is really talking publicly about the situation, that is until I saw a story from the Star Tribune this morning in which the Augsburg president said there is a consensus to boot St. Thomas from the MIAC. The fact that everyone is being so quiet on the issue publicly is also rather odd to me. There can only be speculation as to which schools will vote in favor of tossing St. Thomas out of the conference.

The whole thing is mind-boggling. I completely understand other teams being frustrated with a good St. Thomas football team, one that defeated St. Olaf 97-0 in November 2017. I understand how that comes off as poor sportsmanship. I do. Running up the score and all that. But kicking the school out of the conference because you're mad about it, and having to change the rules in order to make that happen? It seems ridiculous.

By the way, the Tommies finished third in the MIAC in football last fall and didn't make the playoffs. Bethel and St. John's both made the postseason and are the two other powerhouse football teams in the conference.  If this vote goes through to oust St. Thomas, it's a slippery slope to see how long it will be before the rest of the schools come after the Johnnies and Royals. It's a precedent that shouldn't be set.

Even though the Tommies lost that close game to the Johnnies in 2008, it was still one of the greatest atmospheres to be part of for a football game on campus. The game at Target Field was a blast, as I'm sure it will be at Allianz Field. I'd hate to see that rivalry end. I'd also hate to see St. Thomas kicked out of its conference for some pretty juvenile reasons. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

#ThisIsMay: Let the prep for the Indy 500 begin

Well, it's May 1, and I've already watched some old Indianapolis 500 footage. That crazy start and spectacular close finish to the race in 1982 were just so good.

I might be a little excited about what's coming up in the sports world.

First of all, the Minnesota Twins are off to an incredible, and perhaps surprising (to some) start, leading the American League Central Division with a 17-10 record through the end of April and crushing 50 home runs. It's been fun to watch so far, with the power this team has displayed. Eddie Rosario leads the AL in home runs with 11, Byron Buxton is healthy and showing his speed in center field and along the base paths, Willians Astudillo is one of the most popular players here in years (though he's on the injured list at the moment) and the starting pitching has gotten the job done for the most part. See Jake Odorizzi and Martin Perez from this week against the Houston Astros as exhibits A and B.

It would be nice if the Minnesota weather cooperated a bit, considering that May has arrived. On the bright side, only one April game was postponed because of snow this year instead of the three-game weekend series that was called for a blizzard. So, in the words of Minnesota meteorologists everywhere: We'll take it.

Either way, there's been plenty of good baseball so far, and I hope it can continue into May.

But really, the month of May is always exciting if you're an open-wheel racing fan. Yes, the countdown is on for the greatest spectacle in racing: The Indianapolis 500. This year will be the 103rd running of the race, held traditionally on Memorial Day weekend.

There's already been some recent buzz about possible changes to qualifying, like having guaranteed spots for full-time drivers. This debate sparked after last year's qualifying runs when fan-favorite and full-time driver James Hinchcliffe failed to make the show. But no such changes are on the books for this year's race.

The entry list was released Wednesday, with 36 cars entered for a field that will get bumped down to the traditional 33.

Seven Indy 500 champions are in the field, including five of the past six winners (minus Juan Pablo Montoya who won in 2015). Helio Castroneves once again isn't a full-time driver in the NTT IndyCar Series, but he'll be back with the powerhouse Team Penske to try for his record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory. Castroneves was the last back-to-back winner in 2001 and *2002, plus he hit victory lane in 2009.

*I also say Castroneves is a two-time winner, because I'm Team Paul Tracy and believe he was the rightful winner of the 2002 race. Tracy made a pass for the lead near the end of the race, but it was around the time a caution flag came out for a crash and the scoring went back to the previous lap when Castroneves had the lead. 

Anyway, last year's series champion, Scott Dixon, is another past winner, having won in 2008. Dixon is one of the veteran drivers in the field, and it would almost be a shame to have him only get one Indy 500 victory in his career. Although, somebody was watching over him in the 2017 race when he walked away from a scary looking crash.

Another veteran, Tony Kanaan, had his share of bad luck before finally getting a win in 2013. Three drivers who won under team owner Michael Andretti will try for their second wins: Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014), Alexander Rossi (2016) and Takuma Sato (2017). Former series champion and Penske driver Will Power is the defending Indy 500 champion. He'll try to become, as mentioned, the first driver to win the race in back-to-back years since Castroneves.

The entry list also includes seven rookies: Marcus Ericsson, Santino Ferrucci, Ben Hanley, Jordan King, Patricio O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist. Colton Herta is also a rookie, but he already has an IndyCar victory to his name after his skilled run at COTA earlier this season. He's the son of former driver and current team owner, Bryan Herta.

F1 superstar Fernando Alonso returns to the speedway with McLaren Racing. He was the 2017 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, leading 27 laps before seeing his day end early thanks to a mechanical problem. A big name in motorsports, Alonso will seek the Triple Crown of auto racing: Winning the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Monaco Grand Prix. He would be just the second driver to accomplish the feat.

In past years, multiple women had entered the field. This year, Pippa Mann, of England, is the only woman looking to make the show. She was heartbroken last year as she joined Hinchcliffe as the two drivers who failed to accomplish the task.

Other drivers on the list include... Americans: Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter, Conor Daly, JR Hildebrand, Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball, Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot, Graham Rahal, Zach Veach; International drivers: Max Chilton, Jack Harvey, Matheus Leist, James Davison, Sebastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and Ed Jones.

Qualifying is the weekend of May 18-19 (please be kind, Mother Nature). Race day is on May 26. For the first time, it will be televised on NBC. All previous telecasts were on ABC.

There are always even-number anniversaries to look back on each year. This time around, it's a rather big one as Mario Andretti will be honored; he won his only Indy 500 in 1969, 50 years ago. His grandson Marco will try to break the Andretti Curse and become the second Andretti driver to reach victory lane. It's also been 30 years since Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. touched wheels near the end of the race, sending Little Al into the wall and Fittipaldi to the checked flag. It's been 40 years since Rick Mears won his first of four Indy 500s.

I've already got my ideas churning for other posts throughout the month of May, which plenty focus on Mario and the Andretti clan. I hope you'll come back to read some more of what I have to share.

In the meantime, I'm sure I'll keep venturing over to YouTube to find old Indy 500 clips. I suggest others do the same.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Hockey Day Minnesota 2019

Hockey Day Minnesota has become an annual tradition for puck fans across the state. The wall-to-wall hockey coverage of outdoor high school games, college games finished off with a home Minnesota Wild game put on by Fox Sports North every year can be a pretty easy choice for couch potatoes who also enjoy watching hockey.

That's especially true on days when the temperature is well below zero.

2017 Twins Winter Caravan.
The 13th annual festivities, which have spilled over to the Thursday and Friday prior as well, was headquartered in Bemidji this year. No, I wasn't up there in person, although I did share a photo on social media from two years ago when I was up there for work with the Minnesota Twins Caravan. I took some selfies with Paul Bunyan and his blue ox.

Blake v. Edina girls' hockey 
Anyway, my hockey weekend started on Friday night covering a premier matchup in high school girls' hockey: Blake v. Edina. For years, Blake was a powerhouse in Class 1A girls' hockey, winning seven state championships, including back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017 before the program opted to move up to Class 2A last season. They're now in the same section as Edina, winners of the past two Class 2A state titles.

Though it's only the second year of a section rivalry between the two teams, they played each other plenty when Blake was a Class 1A squad. Being in the same section as Edina now changes the rivalry a bit, according to Blake coach Shawn Reid.

"Truthfully, I don't think they took us as seriously as they do now," Reid said. "So now I think it is a true rivalry. The games are close."

The teams split their regular-season series 1-1, with the road team winning. Edina defeated Blake in the second game of the season in November, thanks to a hat trick from top scorer CC Bowlby. Friday night, Blake took care of business at Braemar Arena with a 2-1 win thanks to a solid penalty kill, tons of blocked shots and a goal from an eighth grader who only had a couple to her name this season among the roster of offensive weapons for the Bears.

Edina and Blake were last ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in Class 2A in the coaches poll. Another section rival, Wayzata, was ranked No. 4. So it looks to be a three-horse race for a trip to the state tournament.

HDM from the couch
I didn't envy some of my friends and colleagues up covering all the Hockey Day festivities in Bemidji in the below-zero cold. I'm sure it was memorable and fun though. Instead, I watched some of the action at home, starting with the boys' hockey game between No. 2-ranked Andover and No. 1 Minnetonka in a battle of undefeated teams.

Andover scored a shorthanded goal near the end of the first period for a 1-0 lead but the Skippers quickly tied the game 1-1 before the period was over. Andover had to kill a major penalty in the second period and gave up another goal for a 2-1 deficit. The penalty kill was commonplace for the Huskies in that period, and they never fully got back into the game, losing 5-2.

One of my contributions to the HDM program put together by the Minnesota Hockey Magazine staff was a feature about Andover hockey and defenseman Wyatt Kaiser who's grandpa Blane Comstock played for Bemidji State and a 1976 Olympian.

I talked with Andover coach Mark Manney after Andover's game at Elk River in December, a 3-2 win that ended up being a lot closer than it could have been. The Huskies didn't have their A-game that night, according to Manney.

"This is exactly how we've practiced for the last two weeks, just with 80 percent effort," Manney said. "Closer than I wanted, but probably what we deserved."

Shifting gears, I asked Manney about Andover playing on HDM for the first time.

"It's really going to be neat for our guys to play the defending state champs," Manney said. "And they're No. 1 and maybe we'll be No. 2 at the time, which I think would get a lot of other people's interest.

"I'm hoping we can just get out there and have a great experience, create some memories to take. If we win, that'd be great. If we don't, we're still going to make memories."

True to that sentiment, Manney made a goaltender switch to start the third period on Hockey Day down just 2-1. He told FSN during an in-game, audio interview that he wanted to give both goaltenders a chance to play in this game. A few months down the road, no one will remember the score but they'll remember the experience, according to Manney.

Whitecaps back in town
Hockey Day Minnesota features outdoor high school games, college games, the Gophers usually have home games and it all finishes with the Wild at the X. For the first time ever, Minnesota had a professional women's team playing on Hockey Day as the Minnesota Whitecaps hosted the Connecticut Whale.

The Whitecaps finished their regular-season home schedule with the weekend series and sold out all eight games at TRIA Rink (1,200 capacity). In its first year as part of the National Women's Hockey League, the Whitecaps started the season undefeated for six games and have been near the top of the standings. They beat the last-place Whale with back-to-back shutouts 2-0 and then 9-0 on Sunday.

"I think we all take so much pride in hockey in Minnesota, so to have a whole day dedicated to it is pretty cool," said Hannah Brandt, Whitecaps forward, former Gophers player, Olympic gold medalist and Minnesotan. "You obviously want to play on Hockey Day Minnesota, even if it's not a game that's necessarily being featured."

It's been fun to take in the Whitecaps games this season, and it's been especially fun to see the support from all the Minnesota hockey fans. There were plenty of youth/high school girls' hockey teams there to watch every game. And the Whitecaps line up to sign autographs for fans after every home game, too.

Let's go Wild
To finish things off on Saturday, I took the brisk (very brisk) walk from TRIA Rink over to Xcel Energy Center just in time for most of the second period and third-period action as the Wild played Columbus. I missed both of the Wild goals, coming from Jordan Greenway (who just loves to score the first goal of the game) and Zach Parise in the first period but saw the Blue Jackets get within one on a goal from Panarin 3 minutes, 7 seconds into the second.

The 2-1 score held up, and the Wild defeated an Eastern Conference team with more points and wins. The schedule has been a bit of a role reversal for the Wild, losing to teams they shouldn't and then sometimes finding a way to beat teams better than them according to the standings.

During small group last week, we discussed our weekend plans. When I mentioned all the hockey I was going to take in, this was a response: "Wow, you must like hockey."

Yes. Yes, I do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Aussie Open: Murray's career might have come to an abrupt end

At Wimbledon in January 2008. One of my favorite photos
from the trip to London.
Winter is not my favorite season. That may seem strange, considering how much I enjoy watching and covering hockey, but it's true. I could do without the snow, icy roads and sub-freezing temperatures. A mild winter with temps in the 30s and 40s would actually do just fine.

Still, one of the highlights during the doldrums of the winter months comes in mid-January when the tennis season starts with the first Grand Slam of the year: The Australian Open. Unlike Wimbledon, this tournament fits my night-owl ways a little bit better so I can stay up late (or just stay up until my normal, late-hour bedtime) to watch some tennis. The toughest part might be curbing my jealousy as the ESPN commentators discuss things like severe heat warnings and then the camera cuts to shots of the sunny Australian setting or players dripping with sweat.

At any rate, it's always a fun way to kick off tennis season and have a little variety in sports viewing. This time around, there was news even before the tournament started. Andy Murray held a tear-filled news conference announcing that this Grand Slam could very well be his last, saying he will retire in 2019. The 31-year-old and former No. 1 player has battled an injured right hip.

Murray mentioned in the presser how he's been struggling for a while.

"I've been in a lot of pain for probably about 20 months now," Murray said during the news conference. "I've pretty much done everything that I could to try and get my hip feeling better. ... Still in a lot of pain. It's been tough."

He added that he's not sure he can play through the pain for another four or five months. Obviously, playing Wimbledon one last time would be a goal. If he's able.

As the matches got started in the first round Sunday night, I thought about hitting the record button for the four overnight hours when Murray was scheduled to play. Nah, I thought. He'll get through the first round.

Spoiler alert: He did not. Despite playing well and taking the match to five sets after losing the first two, Murray was defeated by Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2.

The could very well be the last time tennis fans seem Murray in a Grand Slam tournament. If that's the case, it's the end of a solid career and one cut short. A career with immense pressure as Murray was the pride of Great Britain. He won three Grand Slams, two Olympic gold medals and is a Davis Cup Champion.

I still remember listening to the end of the 2012 Wimbledon final when Murray came up short in four sets against Roger Federer. I can't imagine the disappointment he felt, finally getting oh-so-close to a Grand Slam but still unable to grab one, especially on the home grass. Let's face it, Federer is no freakin' slouch. I felt similar to when Andy Roddick lost at Wimbledon to Federer in 2009, that Murray might not ever see his dream of a grand slam realized, especially in front of his home fans.

For me, while the women's tennis world has been a combination of flashes in the pan, upsets and not much consistency at the top unless your name is Williams, the men's game over the past decade or more had a top crop of players. It was always Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Murray as the big four.

Murray's first grand slam title came at the U.S. Open in 2012 when he defeated Djokovic in a five-set thriller, 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. It was the first time in 76 years that a British man a grand slam singles title. So yeah, there was some pressure there. Murray finally got his day in the sun at home, too, winning at Wimbledon in 2013 with a straight-set victory over Djokovic, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

Announcing his retirement prior to the Australian Open this year had to be particularly difficult because Murray has never won the tournament in Melbourne, despite making it to the final five times in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016. With the three grand slam titles to his name, it's fitting that two of them came on the grass at Wimbledon as he won it for the second time in 2016.

Murray had a successful 2016 season, making it to the finals of the Australian and French opens along with winning Wimbledon. He was also ranked No. 1 in the world.

But after that, it was a different story. He lost in the fourth round in Australia, then in the second round at Indian Wells. He suffered an elbow injury. He also dealt with the hip injury that just kept hanging around and made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He also missed some other tournaments and ended up losing the No. 1 next to his name, because of the hip injury. Causing a little controversy, he waited until just days before the U.S. Open to withdraw.

It was the same story for the 2018 Aussie Open, with the hip injury keeping him out. This time, he underwent surgery. He wasn't ready to come back and also withdrew from Wimbledon that year. Murray's career since the hip injury has been a waiting game to see if he'll play or withdraw because his body just wasn't ready to play in five-setters. He made it back for the U.S. Open last fall but lost in the second round.

I'm sure Murray would love to come back for Wimbledon, but playing a hard-fought, five-set match in the Australian Open is also not a bad way to end his career. It has to be tough knowing that this wasn't his decision, in the sense that his injuries and his body were dictating things. Still, a three-time Grand Slam champion, and one who had such immense pressure on himself, offers a lot for Murray to be proud of as he retires in his early 30s.

It will be different not seeing Murray as part of the top-tier men's tennis game, but taking care of his body for the long-term has to come first.