Tuesday, May 19, 2015

We've Been Here Before (aka Existential Ramblings)

It's Indianapolis.

It's May.

It's the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and all that accompanies it.

Speed. Danger. Thrills. Drama.

This Sunday will be my 28th Indy 500.

In light of the recent uproar regarding the on-track incidents of the past week, (largely from those voices with a marginal or myopic understanding at best of the history of this event), it should also be noted that those who can frame last week from a larger, more historic viewpoint, see this as nothing terribly unusual nor panic-inducing as some in the broadcast media might.

The above was my previous post idea in process for today and I've since changed my thought process in light of the particularly graphic description by this Racer article that was released today describing the injuries sustained and the subsequent life-saving treatment by the Holmatro Safety Crew of James Hinchcliffe yesterday. 

In times like these when circumstances violently remind us that our racing heroes are in fact mortal, my thoughts seem gravitate to one inescapable truth of auto racing:

No matter how dissonant our love of the thrill, and our dislike for the inherent danger required at the highest levels, auto-racing, and more specifically, Indycar racing, is a brutal sport. Nowhere is it more glorious or more brutal than at its most hallowed ground - The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A curiosity surrounding the spectre of death seems to be an integral part of the human psyche. There are many forms of auto-racing but it seems at the grandest of "Cathedrals of Speed", Indycars racing at Indy have a way of most-markedly forcing us to confront this dark part of our psyche. 

Speed, thrills, crashes, injury, and death represent the long dark thread woven into the otherwise colorful and vibrant fabric of auto-racing. That long dark thread also serves to remind us all that despite machinations otherwise, there is a delicate fragility to life and shockingly so when juxtaposed against those brave ones who inspire the rest of us by risking life and limb. Their risk traded for mere glory and riches. 

I believe I understand the need or near-fixation of many to participate in that arena, but let's also not forget that they do it, ultimately, because we pay to watch them do it. 

James Hinchcliffe is another in a very long list of those who have exhibited the appropriate skills, weighed the consequences, and assumed the risks in trade for our money and adulation.

"Hinch" is now another in a very long list of those who also have traded sinew, tissue, blood, bone, mental faculties, and life essence in trade for our money and adulation.

Culpability begins at home. 

Culpability begins in the family car, the RV, the Bus, driving to the ol' Speedway, wearing specially printed shirts and 51-weeks-pre-paid tickets in hand. 

We cannot, as willing witnesses to the immense inspirations of their glory, also selfishly turn a blind eye in their darkest of moments. Drivers, crews, families, and fans are all bonded by the acceptance of these non-negotiable terms.

After all these years, I think only in the last year or two have I reconciled my feelings of immense guilt and culpability when the awful things happen with the immense satisfaction and joy when things go so very right in this sport. 

This Sunday, in Speedway, Indiana, I'll accept that I'm there to see something amazing and satisfying with the knowledge that I could also, at any point, in any turn, by any driver, see things go horribly wrong. I don't revel in that thought, but I do accept it. Just as I am there to see amazing, so are the drivers there from a desire to produce it.

Perhaps that is why the reverence for this cathedral and those who've chosen to compete there grows in me with every passing year. I feel a sense of duty to return, and to toast with a drink, in celebration of the courage of these racers in their grand success and to exhibit proper reverence in their moments of pain.

May this Sunday be filled with celebration.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Where Amazing Happens / Alternate Realties

One of the most enjoyable parts of the Indy 500 is not only the amazing and rich history of the event, but knowing that each year is an opportunity to see something amazing. 

Some of the richest lore comes from events that seemed destined for a certain end if not for the intervention of fate's final twist and newest Indy legend born.

I think of some of those events that nine times out of ten would turn out differently, more predictably, yet didn't, forever changing the future course of the race itself.  Over the next few weeks, I'm going to offer some of the most influential twists of racing fate in Indy 500 history and offer some alternate histories:

1987 - Mario Is Slowing Down:
The 71st Running of the 500 should have been the most uninteresting of modern history. Dominating the entire month's practice speeds through qualifying and even the Carb Day pit stop competition, Mario Andretti looked poised to finally shed the "Andretti Curse" and win his second Indy 500. Leading from the drop of the green flag, Mario led 170 of the first 177 laps of the race, losing the lead only briefly during pit cycles. On Lap 177, Mario was cruising to a seemingly easy victory when an electronic fueling malfunction occurred forcing Mario to the pits. His car never recovered and from there we know the rest, Roberto Guerrero assumes the lead after being over a full lap down to Mario, only to stall in the pits on the final stop allowing a further lap down Al Unser, Sr., to assume the lead.  'Big Al' hangs on to win his fourth after being rideless just 13 days prior.

Now let's engage some imaginative thought; just forget the history as it exists and travel down a new path...

Mario wins the 1987 Indy 500 in a runaway victory. He and Michael go on to finish 1st/2nd respectively in the points title for different teams. Newman/Haas, seeing the extreme value in having the two together, expands to include Michael for 1988, driving Lola/Chevrolets for 1988. Struggling initially, they hit their peak at the 1988 Indy 500 with Michael defeating Mario via a late-race restart and becoming the first (and only to date) Father-Son pair to finish 1-2 at Indy.

Kraco Racing (Michael's previous team), starts the 1988 season with Al Unser behind the wheel and has predictably steady results due to the combination of the March chassis, Cosworth motor, and Big Al's tempered hand on the wheel. Near the end of the 1988 season, Kraco Racing is absorbed by Rick Galles Racing forming yet another formidable father-son team combination with Al Jr. for 1989.  The Andretti-Unser "family feud" begins and runs through the 1992 season when Mario, Al Sr., AJ Foyt, and Rick Mears all retire.

These 'Legends of the Brickyard' leave a massive hole in the sport with their retirements - AJ with 4- 500 wins, Mario and Al Sr. each with 3, and Mears with 2.  Mario comes out of retirement for the 1993 Indy 500 and finishes second to Michael again.

Al Unser, Jr., never makes it to victory lane in 1992 and never utters those famous words, Emerson Fittipaldi never becomes reviled as he was for drinking orange juice in 1993. Andrettis go on to to place three different family faces on the Borg-Warner, totaling 6 wins, Mario 3, Michael 2, Marco 1.  


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Legacy of 'The Greatest 33'

I am, perhaps, quite predictable. 

I can't possibly know this, however, unless evidenced by others. 

For those that know me well, they register only faint surprise when I produce one of two sports-related anecdotes; one that employs use of comparative statistics, or one that reflects my nostalgic nature.

Today's post is a little of both.

As a nostalgist, a willful tethering to the past is standard operating procedure for better or worse and when it comes to the subject of Indycars and the Indy 500, I am tethered thusly. So on a day like yesterday, that deep spring day when the cars begin their first ovoid circuits of The Track in May, I eagerly recall familiar places and things past from the greatest of all speedways. 

One such thing was a website that silently orbited the internet, maintaining its critical function for only a few years, until it was taken down, it's original mission essentially complete. IMS produced an interesting site for the 100th Anniversary race in 2011 called The Greatest 33. While the site his since been taken down, it produced much fodder for Indy 500 fans and I also participated in assembling my own 'Greatest 33'.

The process for doing the original was enjoyable and so I've been fairly diligent in maintaining a spreadsheet with the formula I used and data entered to make my selections (only active drivers with wins or with many years of experience need updating). Every year around the start of May, I open it again and review it for 'accuracy'. In other words, I ponder whether I feel that the formula used is still fair and producing 'accurate' relative rankings. I've never been one to rely on totally subjective feelings and thoughts when considering something of this magnitude. Mine is perhaps quite the opposite. I rely first and foremost on the statistics of performance as this is my personal preference for assessing the Greatest 33.

One exception I made to the hardness of the numbers was a play on the "Last Row Party" made famous by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation members for the rather dubious honor of starting in the last row.  My last row was to be made a specially designated place for the three best ever to have never won. Essentially, I have a Greatest 30, plus three with careers of significance, but lacking that final verse of the turn into victory lane.

Here is my Greatest 33 following the 2014 Indy 500 results:

Rows 1 - 3:

Rows 4 - 7:

Rows 8 - 11:

And my criteria for helping select these drivers:

As you can see, emphasis is weighted heavily on winning the race, with additional consideration for Top 5 finishes, Poles won, Laps lead, and making the race. Michael Andretti, Ted Horn, and Rex Mays are the three highest rated non-winners at the expense of Buddy Lazier and Sam Hanks. 

For 2015, I am considering tinkering very slightly with the amounts of weight between these categories and also have given an intangible additional consideration for those who've also held track records or currently own a track record. 

I'm actually quite happy with this list although I think fair arguments could be made for other drivers in the one-win and no-win positions. This is how I choose to delineate my "Greatest" from the "merely great" or "very good". 

What is of most importance and most exciting to me now is seeing what changes from year to year with the active drivers moving in the list. 

Will Helio, Dixon, or Kanaan, gain an additional win and move them each into the most rarefied of air in my Greatest 33? 

Can Carpenter, Marco, Hunter-Reay, Montoya, or even Lazier move into the discussion based on their results this year? 

What do you think of these cold, hard, numbers that marginalize the likes of Lloyd Ruby, Dan Gurney, Gary Bettenhausen, Jules Goux? 

These are things I enjoy pondering and makes following along consistently much more interesting. 

Let me know what you think about the legacy of The Greatest 33..