Thursday, January 18, 2018

Catching Up with Portland International Raceway

The addition of Portland International Raceway to the 2018 Indycar calendar was one that came as some surprise to me and forces me to connect with the sport's past in a new way during this off-season.

This track originally existed on the Indycar calendar at a time when I was often preoccupied with the matters of adolescence and young adulthood, and also during the time of year (June) when still satiated of racing from the Indy 500.

Early-summers for me meant being fully into my golfing practice schedule (for which I dedicated the most of my time, playing competitively in high school and college). Summer weekends of the 1980s through mid-1990s rarely found me in front of a TV in the mid-afternoon.


As a result, I cannot say that I ever watched the Grand Prix of Portland live on TV. Once the track stayed with the CART/ChampCar calendar in 1996-2007, I felt no significant reason to prioritize its viewing.  Now I find myself, decades later, researching the history of the race and wanting to become familiar with the track layout. In doing so, I found a very interesting history of the track's emergence into being. For some more dedicated than myself to Indycar during those years, this will probably be old news, but for fans newer to the Portland International Raceway and the Grand Prix of Portland, these are the bits I found of most interest:

1. Portland International Raceway was built on the site of a former small city.
Vanport, Oregon was essentially washed from existence during the Memorial Day weekend of 1948, by the massive flooding of the Columbia River.  The existence of Vanport, built on a low-lying area between Portland, Oregon and neighboring Vancouver Washington to the north (hence the portmanteau of Vanport), began as a wartime public housing project conceived, designed, and completed in less than a year (1942) to house an influx of workers involved with the local shipbuilding industry.  At it's peak, over 42,000 people inhabited the residential city, the second largest in the State of Oregon.

In late-spring 1948, after a heavy, late-season snowfall followed by torrential seasonal rains, the snowpack and rainfall across the Columbia River watershed (from as far away as Montana and British Columbia), coverged into the Columbia River, pushing the oncoming water to over the dike system developed to protect Vanport. The entire area was flooded by as much as 20 feet of flowing water, releasing the housing and structures from their meager foundations.  With much of Vanport's population transient workers, the decision was made to not rebuild the public housing and the young residential city ceased to be.  


(l - Vanport City, r - current day PIR)

The City of Portland annexed the area in 1960 and began contemplating how to use what little remained - the city streets of Vanport. Alas, as racing was a burgeoning post-war sport and, when combined with the Portland Rose Festival, automobile and motorcycle racing became staples of those grounds.

As the danger of remaining building foundations and precious little protection for drivers and fans existed, fulfilling the requests by racing sanctions saw the reconstruction of the area into a fully-dedicated drag-racing and road course facility, now what we see as Portland International Raceway.  Trans-Am (SCCA sanction) racing in the mid-1970s brought attention to the track by those in charge of CART.  Some of the remaining visible Vanport city features have been highlighted in yellow in the photo above.

2. Longtime Sponsor - G. I. Joe's was not related to the toy of the same name.
With the decision to bring Indycars to PIR for the 1984 season, Stroh's Beer was the first title sponsor to come on board for two years. Following thereafter, local military surplus-turned-sporting goods chain - G. I. Joe's - began it's run of being primary or co-primary sponsor of the race for 20 of the next 21 years. G. I. Joe's was originally a military surplus store which grew into a local chain and expanded offerings to include outdoor gear, automotive parts, and sporting goods as military surplus dwindled.

Joe's, as it came to be known following an equity buyout, suffered in the mid-2000s, fell into bankruptcy proceedings in 2007, and was liquidated in 2009.  The event's return this year is simply listed as 'The Grand Prix of Portland'.

3. Justin Wilson holds the track record.
Set during qualifications, Justin Wilson set the current track time record of 57.597 for one lap of the current 1.964 mile layout, driving the RuSport entry in 2005. His time equates to an average speed of 122.756 mph. Previous layouts and measurements in the history of the event show a quicker time and the slightest of faster average speeds, but those layouts are not the current one in use today.

(Justin Wilson on a qualifying run at PIR, 2005)

4. Pole and Race Winners are a 'Who's Who' of American Open-Wheel racing.
If the history of this Indycar race says anything, it's that only a titan of the sport will win at Portland.  Multiple Pole Winners include; Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi, 3 times, and Justin Wilson twice.  Currently active driver Sebastien Bourdais is the defending Champion (2007). Past Race winners listed following;
1984 - Al Unser, Jr.,
1985, 1986 - Mario Andretti,
1987 - Bobby Rahal,
1988 - Danny Sullivan,
1989 - Emerson Fittipaldi,
1990, 1991, 1992 - Michael Andretti,
1993 - E. Fittipaldi,
1994, 1995 - A. Unser Jr.,
1996 - Alex Zanardi,
1997 - Mark Blundell
1998 - A. Zanardi,
1999, 2000 - Gil De Ferran,
2001 - Max Papis,
2002 - Cristiano Da Matta,
2003 - Adrian Fernandez,
2004 - Sebastien Bourdais,
2005 - C. Da Matta,
2006 - A.J. Allmendinger,
2007 - S. Bourdais

I look forward to delving into more of this race's history and watching older race footage if available online. At the very least, I'll be watching what I expect to be another great race and for the first time in my history, live.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Dear Aerokits, Thanks for Everything. Sincerely, This Old Fan



As we draw to a close this latest of Indycar seasons, we also dedicate to posterity what may be labelled as the 'Aerokit Era'.

I see it as the last remnant of the Randy Bernard era or the second half of the DW12 era (2012 through 2014) pushed on by Derrick Walker, and spanning from 2015 through 2017.

How it will be viewed is a matter for time to decide. Marshall Pruett has a fantastic article in Racer Magazine that reviews the Aerokit era from a more technical point of view including the feedback of several drivers during that era.

Some may judge it harshly for the on-track product, possibly labelled as a step back from to the previous and surprisingly-racy DW-12 spec chassis era. Expenses related to development, expenses related to repairs, extensive clean-ups times from in-race contact, ineffectiveness of abating contact via the rear bumper-pods, detrimental effects on trailing cars' handling, and even serious questions of safety for both driver and race fan from flying debris and flying cars when not retained or pointed in the prescribed direction, were all unintended consequences and valid concerns which needed addressed only weeks into the practical application of the aerokits. Maybe those who judged them harshly were right. History will also show they weren't a significant "needle-mover" with fans or TV ratings.

What I had hoped for and saw from this era, however, is something less practical and more widely symbolic - a significant turning point in American open-wheel racing.  The DW12/aerokit era represented a new way of thinking about many things, one of which was a perceived shift in sport-to-fan relations.

In an age of unprecedented access and information to the mass public, what remained of the dwindling legion of AOWR fans had multiple platforms to make their voices heard, often and loudly. Demands for progress in the sport on many fronts were frequent.  None perhaps more frequent or symbolic than the car itself. While the relative cost to own and race an eight-year-old spec chassis design may have been more owner-friendly, it also wasn't providing the fans or sponsors with any confidence that the sport was moving in a positive direction.

Count me among those, so when the earthquake of leadership at Hulman and Company brought in a fan-focused and visible leader in Randy Bernard, there was finally reason for fans to embrace a bit of optimism for progress. Perhaps quite emblematic of his tenure, the Bernard era that begat the Aerokit was also not without a raft of unintended consequences.

On a larger scale though, I still deem it to be an overall success as the tumult from what became the Aerokit era, was also a seismic shift away from the stale and somewhat rudimentary past, providing Indycar fans, sponsors, and teams a fresh glimmer of hope for the future.

While only two manufacturers committed to the aerokit era, what was discovered through their competition and experience formed the foundation for what could be one of the most impressive overall eras for safety, performance, driving, racing, and watching Indycars we've ever seen.  So much so that teams, drivers, and sponsors in the staid and classist Formula 1 series, have cause to take a serious look at what is going on in Indycar.

Much of the credit goes to the Mark Miles era of leadership and more specifically to the appointed work of Jay Frye and Bill Pappas in taking the lessons of the aerokit era, amplifying the positives, reducing the negatives, and developing the new spec chassis for 2018 and beyond. Many great fan-produced liveries also attest to, and are emblematic of, the enthusiastic reception this new car has received.  Dare I say I cannot wait for February 2018 already?

When weighed against past eras, I am very optimistic that this era we approach, the IR18, with the all-around amount of technology, safety, performance, and aesthetic appeal, coupled with one of the greatest generations of drivers, Indycar should see a revival of sorts. All of this would not have been possible, however, without the engaging experiment that started with the Randy Bernard leadership and ended with the Aerokit era.


Never a fan of the concept of spec racing, I see the oncoming Indycar era as what might represent the pinnacle or 'best possible solution' of spec racing in its most overall sense. The next step (and final piece), in my opinion, should include more variety of power plant configurations (and manufacturers). If this proves to be true, the coming era of Indycar may very well be at the forefront of the best auto-racing on the planet.  

       

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Overdue Love for Dr. Trammell and the Holmatro Safety Crew

(c) 2017, Indycar.com video
Recently, in what was simply the cutest letter of appreciation from a fan to Indycar, revealed the depth of understanding even an 9-year-old has for the dangers of the sport. Thankfully the dangers weren't realized in their worst and Lucy got to meet her favorite driver and see that he's OK after a terrifying, flying shunt during the Indy 500.

For driver Scott Dixon and 9 year-old fan Lucy to even be able to have this touching moment, much of the sentiment expressed by Lucy also needs to be extended to the source of most all of the racing safety innovations of the last 20 years, Dr. Terry Trammell. 

(c) 2016, FIA
The world-class team and overall driver safety/emergency response that exists these days started with orthopedic and racing specialist extraordinaire, Dr. Trammell.

This piece by the IndyStar gives a great background into the depth of involvement Dr. Trammell had in evolving the chassis design, driver safety gear, track design, Holmatro Safety Crew procedures, and injury evaluation criteria.
This is due, sadly, to the fact that because of Indycar's history as one of the most visible and most relatively dangerous forms of auto racing for nearly 100 years. Basically everything now we see as a standard is an immense improvement over the ghastly accidents that took life and limb for over 90 years.  Nearly all of it comes from the first-hand experiences of Dr. Trammell and the constant work, care, and forethought that he guided for over 20 years, continues to this day. 

Credit for forethought and support must also be given to the leagues associated with Indycar racing over the years and their desire to constantly look to reduce the consequences of those unfortunate events for those who choose Indycar racing as their profession, as well as the safety of crews and fans in the stands.

(c) 2016, Chris Jones, Indycar
For me, this man and those he worked with should be honored quite publicly via a permanent display and in presented in an honorable and heroic manner befitting one who saved others' lives.  

As a fan, I can only extend my most sincere gratitude to Dr. Trammell, his co-workers, and crews for all of their efforts to make Indycar racing, and all forms of auto racing, safer for all.