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.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Here I Go Again

Once again, it's that time of year that many of us struggle with. Mere hours after the checkers fall for the newest driver to add their name and likeness to the century-old legend, Indy 500 Seasonal Affective Disorder engulfs those for whom "364 days to the Indy 500" is quite possibly the saddest sporting phrase uttered at any point during the year. Instead of wallowing, I'll somewhat wistfully recap my view of the 101st Indy 500.

Tres Amigos de la 500 - 2017
Aside from my raceday attire, for which my son grows increasingly unimpressed, and those of my two Indy 500 compatriots (who you may have seen in the IndyStar, et. al.), I've learned to simply take in the events we choose to attend as they're presented.

Admittedly, the ominous daily weather forecast required that we have at least some idea of contingencies and ingress/egress plans. It was one of the worst Indy 500 weekends for weather forecasts I've seen in a very long time. Fortune allowed us some really terrific weather for being at the track and we were able to catch all the events and nearly all of the people we wanted. 

This year was my 30th race.

I didn't have any specific plans to celebrate the milestone, other than my tried and true mantra of simply "being present" without trying to manufacture genuinely good times. 

In reflecting on 30 races I've attended, 1979-'80, '88-'17 (except for 1997 and 1998 when I protest-voted with my wallet to not attend because of my view that the sport was fractured and severely diminished), I find myself currently relatively healed from much of the heartbreak and tragedy during the last 20 years. I grow more weary of that process each time I've done it but, after the thrilling race that was the 2017 edition, here I go again, starting to fall in love with modern Indycar racing and the 500 in a new way. 

Firstly, I am extremely thankful and aware that the Howard-Dixon crash in the South Chute was perilously close to a result that would have many again calling into question a great many things about the sport. I've made those thoughts and concerns evident on more that one occasion both here and via Twitter over the last six years, so I won't take up that banner again, except to only state that we should all be well-aware that we were lucky in the extreme to have the result we did. 

During our slow progress through traffic back to our hotel, I kept thinking about this Indy 500, and the word that kept popping up in my head was "prototypical". 

In more current terms of the racing anyway, the myriad of storylines and strategies coming into raceday, the speed, pageantry, excitement, and spectacle of it all seemed more natural and just as amazing as most any previous, culminating in 10 of the most riveting closing laps of drama I've seen in 30 races. Takuma Sato's redemption from the slightest of miscalculations 5 years earlier was a classic heroic story which will only grow with time. 


It is perhaps a blessing and a curse that each race of this legendary event gets compared and contrasted to the many before it every year, but I revel in the fact that the old Brickyard seems to always produce something amazing and unpredictable along the way. 

The 101st running was no different in that manner. 

"Here I Go Again" is an oft-used phrase in music over several generations and genres to describe that degree of yearning and even helplessness one feels when experiencing a similar love or situation again that, for whatever reason, once ceased to be. So whether it be Ricky Nelson, or Whitesnake, or Salt N Pepa, or The Hollies, or Country Joe and the Fish, or Dolly Parton, or Bobby Wright, the theme of loss and re-connection with someone or thing once precious feels most apt for my most recent experience with The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

I guess I have no choice now but to do my best to wait patiently for the coming 51 weeks to pass until the next Indianapolis 500.