Monday, April 9, 2018

W(h)ither The Oval


(c) 2018, Leavitt, LAT
Upon reading this article by Robin Miller for RACER today, I've again returned to my thoughts and this blog in considering the existence of ovals on the Indycar schedule.

On a nearly per-oval-event basis, most longtime and/or devoted Indycar fans offer thoughts on the waning existence and popularity of the "meat and potato" ovals for which there seems little opportunity for change to satisfy the cries for more on the schedule.  


(c) 2018, Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today
Indycar has billed itself as having the most versatile menu of drivers in motorsport. Marketing slogans are often a wry exercise in embellishment, but one would be hard pressed to find the top 20 drivers of any racing series more adept at racing not only multiple styles of tracks, but also multiple types of vehicles than found in the Indycar Series of this decade.

Great drivers can drive most anything it seems, but the current depth of talent found here is worthy of comparison to the legendary greats who raced in the golden era of Indycar (I place at approximately 1960-1979). In 2015 I noted how we seem to have a habit of missing just how truly excellent the current generation of Indycar driver is, but that is another matter. The recent venues of Indycar are of which we discuss today.

Phoenix is another example of an historic Indycar oval venue, rich in golden-era legend, that apparently lacks present-day popularity if judged by crowd size and ticket sales. The same can be said for the likes of Milwaukee, Trenton, Ontario, and Michigan.

Pocono is a golden-era exception whose efforts toward modern-day Indycar have been welcome and notable, but even this grandly unique and historic Indycar speedway doesn't begin to fill its staggering capacity for seated or camping customers.


The ovals associated with the IRL era (1996-2008) such as 
Walt Disney World, Nazareth, Nashville, Kansas, Homestead, Richmond, Kentucky, Charlotte, Atlanta, Michigan, New Hampshire, Las Vegas, Dover, and Chicagoland also failed multiple times to be an attraction to the ticket-buying public. Numerous factors have conspired at different times to cease those Indycar relationships, but often it seemed that in the waning years of an Indycar event at these venues, the dedicated promotion was reduced to nearly nothing instead of increased. 

(c) 2017 Gateway Motorsports Park
Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis is the most recent oval addition (from the IRL oval era) and they've impressed beyond most expectations with their commitment and execution for the return of Indycars in 2017. They have exhibited a motivated desire to see Indycar succeed by lavishing the local markets promoting their race which worked to astounding results.

I might contend, as I have for many years, that the need for an event to succeed at the ticket office, drives the effort by the track to promote the race accordingly. With few exceptions, the tracks noted above are either defunct for Indycar racing, demolished, or owned by International Speedway Corporation (a subsidiary of the NASCAR ownership), or Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (a company who hosts several of the major NASCAR events during their season). Despite Miller's desire to see Indycar return to the few remaining legendary tracks of the golden era, often to the extent that he rarely finds fault with ISC/SMI Indycar race promotion efforts, but I think I see their efforts in a different light. 


While one could argue that none of those venues want to host a failed event, I've always felt that the ownership with such close ties to their primary client  (NASCAR), has little impetus to spend to the degree equal to a NASCAR event required to make it a success.

Fans who've joined this sport in the last 20 years, often have little knowledge of the significance or attraction of the golden-era or even IRL-era tracks for newer fans. When seen with an unbiased eye, the oval racing was in actuality almost always either boring processionals or horrifically dangerous pack-races, neither of which entertained in quite the manner that pleased fans of both sides and the larger audience.

In the modern era of versatility as a selling-point, it would seem preferable that the recipe of scheduling include no preponderance of any particular flavor, but a skilled blending of several. For this, I applaud the current Indycar management - especially Mark Miles and Jay Frye - for working tirelessly to continue to perfect the blend of available seasonings and present a well-balanced and flavorful schedule of events.


It also has long been a mystery to me why, when the opportunities arose, to possibly purchase a few venues along the way, none were nabbed. It makes perfect sense to seal a few locales into the schedule through ownership just as NASCAR has done in a more substantial way, but there's little doubt the Hulman and Company coffers to do so were less flush with cash than ISC's, but there remained a few that possibly could be available for the taking. 


Nashville, Pikes Peak International Raceway, Gateway, Rockingham, and Iowa among others have all traded hands at some point in the last 10 years and IMS/Indycar would've benefited from having at least a couple of those. 

Essentially, to lose Phoenix would be a shame as it holds an historic place as a unique track within the larger Indycar pantheon, but mainly only for those whose value as an Indycar fan is tied to the nostalgia of bygone oval-based eras. 
Losing Phoenix shouldn't be viewed as a deal-breaker, nor ultimately is the loss of any venue whose bread is so heavily buttered with NASCAR dollars. 


With IMS forever the crown jewel of the series, Gateway quickly cementing their place in the schedule, Texas the oft-prickly stalwart, Pocono committed, and Iowa still hanging on, the mix of ovals for 2018 and beyond should be viewed as an appropriately well-balanced blend on the schedule, each of which to be celebrated in their own way, and as a group, properly testing all manner of driving ability. 

Certainly, this also represents a fair sample of the types of ovals Indycar has raced upon in the last 40 years and I will continue to rate higher the actions of serious commitment and dedication to Indycar than any lip-service toward fading historic value. 


Monday, March 12, 2018

Adjectively Speaking

During ABC's TV Broadcast of the Indycar race at St. Pete yesterday, Eddie Cheever made his beloved and dramatic 'one-word' prognostication for the day's event - "chaos". In hindsight, one cannot really argue much with that as the definition accounts for some of the action on track yesterday. 


I had several adjectives that described how I was feeling leading up to, during, and after the very racy 2018 Indycar season opener; hopeful, eager, surprised, anxious, giddy, amazed, empathetic, and hopeful.

Hopefulness sprang out of the months (and, in truth, years) of waiting for a new and exciting Indycar to hit the track. One that justly rewards driver skill and management and also manages to entice a viewer with classically attractive aesthetics.

Eagerness began in earnest with news of testing in January and February. Positive and even glowing reports on the new chassis "raciness" and the good initial function of the potential safety/windscreen flushed my racing cheeks with positivity heading into the new season.  Dare I dream to believe that Indycar once again could be the amazingly entertaining (and even sexy) racing product so many fans knew it could? Could spring signal a rebirth of positivity, excitement, and optimism for one of my favorite sports?

With the twist of fate brought about by moisture on the track during qualifying for the first race of the new season, nothing but surprise could describe most fans' reactions to the qualifying results. The final six in the Firestone Fast Six shootout contained three rookies, three veterans, and for the first time that I could recall in many years, six different teams in the top six spots.  One of those rookies - Jordan King, driving for Ed Carpenter Racing - even set a new track record in the first round of qualifying.

Surprise gave way to the anxious feelings when the green flag is about to fall at St. Pete and especially when there are three rookies up front leading this burgeoning pack of hungry Indycar racers, all eager for those first true racing laps of the new season. Safe to say that I always fear turn one at St. Pete because the symbolism of the long-runway-straight reminds me of the stark off-season, long and slow to build in momentum until the green reminds us we're full-throttle into a hard and opportunistic right-hand 90 degree turn, begging for the most aggressive of lines, before the tires are even warmed.  What happens in that first turn of the first race of the new season often signals what to expect. Especially after the abysmally long wait, to finally have an Indycar that this fan could proudly hold up as the exemplary essence of this type of racing, I still remained anxious for the possible carnage of turn one at the Alfred Whitted Airport race circuit.

With some tenuous and unsurprisingly eventful laps in the book, the race never failed to hold my attention.  I was able to eagerly concentrate on as much racing as the TV coverage would show, despite the expected drone of uninspired and anemic commentary. I would add the caveat that Allen Bestwick gets a pass from me for his work because his job as ringleader of the clownlike coverage is subject to so many things beyond his control, including the bland color commentary. Expecting as much, I tried to focus all of my attention on the visual information we were given and I was liking what I was seeing, especially with the new and revised camera views which added a great deal of excitement to the broadcast. This feeling that had come over me, I hadn't felt in far too long a time. I was giddy with excitement that the racing had given us.

(nose-camera image via Indycar YouTube screen capture)

With the movements of drivers up and down the scoring due to mostly all racing-related variables, I was amazed at the skill of the driving and the passing we were seeing.  All except at the front, where rookie Robert Wickens had shown us why he was so highly rated by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.  He was building a lead over several veteran drivers. How could you not like the fortitude on display?  I was genuinely amazed at how this race was playing out and especially for this driver, so new to Indycars, scarcely putting a wheel wrong all day, deservedly leading in a manner that only exemplified his considerable skill and his team's preparation. This guy, and this team deserved to win.

As we watched the late-race dramas unfold, a race fan of any seasoning would've known we were in for a seriously tense finish. It did not fail in that regard and unfortunately Mr. Wickens was the recipient of a 'racing incident' that in my view could've been avoided and not sent him spinning into the wall after completing, what was to that point, as near-perfect a race as one could have. I would consider myself a fan of Alexander Rossi, but I certainly empathized more with Wickens. He deserved to be on the top step of the podium without question but, as we know so well, racing doesn't always reward the best on that day. So too could I empathize with Sebastien Bourdais's victory as it emotionally and fully closed a circle of high and low events he experienced in the previous 365 days. From his race win here a year ago, to the horrific crash at Indy qualifying, to the rehabilitation of his mind and body, and now a return to victory circle at his adoptive hometown and site of his previous Indycar win, it was a result worthy of celebration. 

(c) 2018, Luis Santana, Tampa Bay Times

In all, yesterday's race was one of the best races I can recall at St. Pete and I am beyond impatient to see the next race. I think that's a sign of the hopefulness I am feeling about each practice session, each qualifying day, and each race this season.  






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.