Monday, May 22, 2017

News Update and The Greatest 33 Revisited - 2017

Firstly, I'll address the post-Pole Day Monday news which is in various parts disturbing, sad, and hopeful. Following those notable items, I'll forward the lesser, pithy bits I had already planned for this space today.

From the "Sad is the news from Italy" department, Kentucky native son and racer at IMS during the Moto GP days, succumbed to his injuries received after automobile collided with him in Italy as he was physically training on a bicycle. He was noted by racers of all types as a great racer and equally good person. My only witness to his skills was a demonstration lap at the Indy 500 in 2008 and I will never forget the sensation of seeing and hearing what moved and sounded much like an Indycar, but terrified to see it was only a diminutive man on a motorcycle absolutely flying by us in a colorful flash on the main straight. I'd never seen anything so fast and so exposed in my life. Here's a video of that demonstration shot by a person nearly directly across from our seats. Thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time. 

In a hopeful bit of news, a reported successful surgery to repair multiple fractures of Seb Bourdais' pelvis and a hip bone sustained in one of the most violent collisions with the Turn 2 wall ever seen at IMS, see the driver already beginning the long healing process which will keep him out of the rest of the Indycar and Sports Car seasons this year. Blessings to Seb, his family, and friends for the prognosis.

And finally from the "I guess we'll say they're fortunate but this is really disturbing" department, yesterday's 101st Indy 500 Pole Winner Scott Dixon, his wife Emma Dixon, and pal Dario Franchitti were the victims of an armed robbery while attempting to secure some delicious trappings from the West 16th Street Taco Bell Sunday evening. Thankfully, they weren't physically harmed and the suspected culprits are in custody.

And now, the post, that post was meant to be today...

(drum roll, regal trumpet fanfare)


The Greatest 33, Revisited - 2017 Pre-race Edition!

If you recall, back in 2011 IMS produced a Greatest 33 feature on their website , allowing fans to review over 100 drivers of the Indy 500 and create their very own Greatest 33. Eager to create my own, I spend many an hour developing a format and formulae for scoring and ranking drivers. Even made a blogpost or two or three about it for which you can still read today. I enjoy updating this list after qualifying and after the race each year to see how it changes.

One thing that is abundantly clear to me, and as I've noted before, is how we're in a second golden age of Indycar driving talent. Not quite the immense shadow cast of the original Golden Generation of Indycar racing, but still, a very stout and talented bunch whose depth of skills encompass a variety not matched by any other driving series on the planet.  They are also those whose time before us in a car sadly grows shorter all the time.

Listed here is my spreadsheet which processes for me, my vision (a blend of longevity, skill, and consistent performance) of what my Greatest at Indy requires. Of course wins count heavily and their value is of greatest importance, however I reserve the last row (11) of my Greatest 33 for the three best drivers to never have won, at the expense of some 1-time winners but those lacking other major accomplishments in comparison.

Following the results of yesterday's Pole Day qualifying, Here are the current rankings: 


Currently, 7 Indy 500 winners are actively in play for the 101st Indy 500, and 9 active drivers rank in the Top 80 here. Most notably perhaps are the greats of this era who have steadily risen in this ranking and have certainly made their mark on the Speedway in the last 20 years. Helio, 
Dario, Iceman, TK, and Montoya, Solidly in the Top 25 all-time for me and all of which spent (except the 1999 race of Montoya) their Indy 500 careers racing against each other. Should Hunter-Reay add a second 500 to his legacy, he would join the other 5 in the Top 25 at Indy. That's a pretty strong representation of this era through the lens of statistics at Indy.

Not only are those greats closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, but there is an excellent crop of young talent ready to make their permanent mark as well.

Largely graduates from the assorted ladder series both domestic and foreign, the young guns enrich the overall talent, making the depth of fields quite impressive.
Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Newgarden, Hildebrand, Kimball, Munoz, Carpenter, Daly, and Marco Andretti, all came up through the modern ladder and their notable longevity is also a testament to the good work being done in developing talent for Indycar. Often drivers who arrive from another major series are looked at as outsiders, but I find they truly add nothing but spice to the simmering recipe of American Open-Wheel Racing and I'm grateful for their added flavor. Bourdais, Sato, Rossi, and now Alonso are excellent drivers and only add to the depth of greatness that we see today.

So while you sit back and take in the 101st Indy 500 this coming Sunday, don't forget that no matter the outcome, no matter who becomes the latest to add their likeness to the Borg-Warner, be they young or old, you're witnessing true racing titans of our era, comparable in many ways to the Golden Era of the 1960s and 70s. 

Appreciate it, because it sure doesn't come around very often.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Second Race I Attended

If you're currently an Indycar fan or just a fan of the Indy 500, a vast majority of us would recall with great reverence, that first race we attended and became hooked on the entire sensory experience.

How many of us recall the second race in a similar manner, however?

My second race came in 1980, one year after my first. 1979, while a fantastic experience and cementing a lifelong love of the speedway (and also strengthening my bond with my father), left me wanting in the racing department because my favorite driver (Al Unser) in what was the best car on that day (the new ground-effect Chaparral), dominated only to drop out with a minor part failure (transmission seal).

The following year I was even further disappointed to learn that Johnny Rutherford would be piloting that formidable and glorious yellow machine for 1980. Al had moved to a new team with a rather squarish, white (Longhorn) car spectacularly unadorned with sponsors and terrifically average on the speed charts all month. This was not a good sign for "my man Al", I thought.




It was the dawn of a new decade. The newly-inaugurated president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, seemed to symbolize the promise of unity and common good needed for much of a country that was hurting from the recession years of 1978-1980. In a reflection of the times (which I continue to note to this day), the uncertainty people felt in the economy was also felt in the racing community. 

Much uncertainty existed for the USAC, fledgling upstart series CART, the cobbled-together CRL (Championship Racing League), and IMS. Tony Hulman had been gone less than three years and the power vacuum was being filled by multiple, divergent sources. 

Teams raced on though. Some preferring the traditional USAC trail which was in decline with cancelled events later in the year, and some teams joining CART and attempting to grow their own series. This was the original "split" that fewer discuss when looking at the history of open-wheel racing in the US. Despite the uncertainty, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Sweepstakes was an unquestioned titan and, for the time being, remained steadfastly on the schedule of both sanctions. 

Race Day 1980 was quite beautiful, hot, and sunny making that Pennzoil Chaparral gleam even more brightly than the previous year. I knew better who this no-name Mears guy was who'd won the race in just his second try the year before. The cast of legends were all there and fairly competitive with a myriad of chassis and engines as the dawning of ground effects seemed to inject some optimism into experimenting.  

The new decade seemed to give hope that the future in general was brighter. Around 29 eligible drivers and over 40 cars missed the field for the 1980 race which seems incredible to imagine in this age.



The domination that we were expecting of the "Yellow Submarine" in 1979 bore fruit in 1980 as Rutherford had a nearly flawless day at the lead of the race for 118 of 200 laps. Tom Sneva, who wrecked his 14th-quickest and already qualified primary Phoenix chassis in practice after qualifying, used a backup McLaren to drive from 33rd to 2nd, even leading the race twice for a total of 16 laps.

It was a day that wasn't particularly notable for the racing, aside from Sneva's excellent run from the back of the pack to 2nd and Rutherford gaining his third 500 crown.


While we waited to leave the infield parking location, my two friends and I left the three fathers back in the vehicle to go stretch our legs (and alleviate some of the boredom of sitting in a hot car going nowhere). Wandering about provided an education of things heretofore unforeseen by these eyes.

This would be the year that I (quite innocently) had wandered too close to the infamous Snake Pit of yore where my first-person accounts of the adult female anatomy would be made much more complete than ever before. And displayed in incredible fashion. Live and in color, the details of which aren't exactly suitable for public discussion. Perhaps someday, if we meet and you're truly interested, I'll provide the event's details.

My 12-year-old self could scarcely believe what we were seeing and I am still quite incredulous to this day. I'm quite certain that if our fathers knew what we were witnessing, they'd have preferred to keep us in the vehicle.

Also, of particular note was my first live-action brawl between adults. Only in recent years did I see a picture of this incident captured by the Indianapolis Star and posted in their annual flashbacks.  Part of me wants to discount some details of the event I saw as boyhood embellishment, but I DO have certain elements reconciled in my brain as correct based on this photo, so while sparing some of the lengthy details, I can say that I witnessed this moment of Snake Pit lore from a range of approximately 30' which seemed far too close once all hell broke loose:



Again, perhaps someday I may regale you in person with my memories of this alcohol-fueled contretemps but safe to say, my second Indy 500 was nearly as memorable as the first, just for vastly different, non-racing-related reasons.




Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Ugliest Car to Qualify at Indy

One of the closest and most exciting finishes in Indy history came in 2006 when Sam Hornish, Jr. passed Marco coming down the front straight within 200 yards of the line on the final lap. Never in the history of the race had the lead changed so closely to the line. My seats were located on the front straight that day just beyond the start/finish line and the noise from the crowd was deafening as it had been only a few times before.

It was an amazing end to a race month that was filled with ugly weather and one of the ugliest cars to ever qualify at Indy.

The two Rookie Orientation days of the month went smoothly, but 7 out of the following 11 available days, including qualifying, were either shortened or cancelled completely by rain. Qualifying was compressed from the '11/11/11/bumps' four-day format to two days. Unfortunately for some teams, there was precious little time to get marginal cars up to speed. PDM Racing was just such a team. 


A smaller-budget team already battling money, time, and the elements just to have an opportunity to make the show. Their rookie driver Thiago Medeiros, the 2004 Infiniti Pro Series Champion, worked well through his Rookie Orientation Procedure in this cobbled together mess of a G-Force chassis on May 8th: 
(c) 2006, Jim Haines, Motorsport.com
The PDM effort was dealt a serious blow when Medeiros crashed and severely damaged (although judging by aesthetics, that may be a relative term) their lone chassis late in the limited practice of Thursday, May 18.

Just two days remained if PDM was going to be able to even attempt to make the race. One final day of practice on Friday and Saturday's Pole Day qualifying later, 32 cars were proven to make the grid, leaving the team of Marty Roth Racing and PDM the only two fighting for that final spot.


The team spent those two days scrambling to find money and parts and time to assemble their one chassis to have their lone, Bump Day shot at making the race. And what an ugly chassis it was. With some unpainted or scavenged, mis-matched parts, a few sponsor stickers, and lots of elbow grease, the PDM team worked for two straight days and nights to get the already abysmal appearing "Frankenchassis" of a Panoz to the limited practice available prior to the final day of qualifying on Sunday, May, 21st.

Due to lack of qualifying attempts, most of Bump Day remained open for practice as teams prepped their Race Day settings. Drama arrived late in the afternoon in the form of A. J. Foyt Racing who surprisingly pulled a third, prepared chassis from their stable and employed the experienced Ryan Briscoe to possibly qualify the number 48.


Adding pressure to what had already been a highly taxing 48 hours for PDM racing, they returned from the garages with less than 60 minutes remaining, following some final changes, a new sponsor sticker, aero parts from what appeared to be no less than 6 different origins, and presented their car for qualifying attempt number one at 5:03pm
(c) 2006, Dan Vielhaber, Indymotorspeedway.com
(c) 2006, Gavin Lawrence

It is fairly certain that to all who followed this story, breathing was done only as minimally as possible.  All of PDM Racing's hopes and aspirations for the 2006 Indy 500 were riding on the four laps that Medeiros was about to take.

Thiago managed to qualify the car on his first attempt, nearly bouncing the 32nd car to 33rd, but slowing enough on the final lap to be set "on the bubble" for the remainder of the day. As the clock ticked and Marty Roth presented a car for qualifying, his hopes were dashed in warm-ups when losing control of the car and colliding with the Turn One wall.

Perhaps mercifully, Foyt withdrew their third car from the qualifying line, and as the gun sounded at 6:00pm, ending qualifying for 2006, underdog PDM Racing and Thiago Medeiros must have felt nearly as jubilant making the field for the 2006 Indy 500 as winning it.

PDM's raceday version of the car was a sight for sore eyes and a marked improvement over what was until then, perhaps the ugliest car to ever contend during the month of May.



(c) 2006, Earl Ma, Motorsport.com