Ground(ed) Effects

Indycar and general autosport opinion

Something recently rekindled my interest in listening to The Talk of Gasoline Alley radio show in May wherein Donald Davidson takes calls about the Indy 500 and fills in many blanks, detailing races and drivers past with astounding clarity and recall.

It is, therefore, pertinent to note that I am, in fact, not Donald Davidson.

He is a living treasure trove of Indycar and Indy 500 knowledge, but that doesn’t relieve the rest of the universe of Indycar fans of the ability and, dare I say, duty, to spend just a little time in sharing our own personal moments and experiences which add color to the specifics of the race.

The upcoming race of 2018 will be the 102nd running and 107th anniversary race. I do consider myself a mere fledgling race veteran with 31 races and the 39th anniversary of my first.

From the vantage point of a single seat on race day, among the throngs of people, there is precious little that you actually get to experience compared to the expansive pantheon that is IMS. So many stories and experiences yet to be told.

These stories, tagged with #IndycarLore by myself and several other bloggers/fans began in earnest from a twitter conversation with “inside the ropes” Indycar veteran, Pat Caporali in 2011.  You will find some of our stories here and also at The Pit Window by Mike Silver, and Another Indycar Blog by Eric Hall. Check them out when you want to read more #IndycarLore about the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Today I offer my small slice of trivia from the 1988 race which I, and a few hundred others witnessed in person: May 29, 1988 – Al Unser and the unlucky rabbit.

Hot, Hot, Hot! – There is always the tendency to embellish the details of an event for effect when storytelling, but it is totally substantiated that raceday of 1988 was the hottest I could recall. Air temps peaked at 98 degrees F and the percentage of humidity was nearly as high. Sitting in the baking sun with minimal clothing that day was a chore and I c an o nly imagine how the drivers suffered under two layers of clothing that day.

After the race, the air conditioning in my car failed, leaving us in the slowest of traffic marches, with the windows and doors open in an effort to collect any breeze and relieve the build-up of suffocating heat inside the car. While stopped in traffic, we paid a slightly exorbitant $1 each for an 8 ounce cup of warm water sold by some neighboring kids on the side of the road. Desperate times for sure.

A fifth 500 for Unser a possibility – Defending champion Al Unser retained a ride in 1988 with Roger Penske after not having one for 1987.  Due to a hard practice crash at Indy, Danny Ongais was deemed unfit to drive at Indy the remainder of the month.  Big Al got the call from Penske and along with teammates Rick Mears on pole, and Danny Sullivan middle of Row 1, Al started on the outside of the front row.

(c) 1988, IMS photo

A new race record Big Al had been near the front or leading for a great portion of the first half of the race, dueling largely with Sullivan and Jim Crawford. He lead briefly during pit stops on laps 31-33 and again at Lap 105 after Sullivan’s Turn 1 crash and Crawford’s pit under yellow. When the race went green on lap 107, Al need only to complete that lap in the lead to surpass the all-time leading-laps leader, Mauri Rose, to up his career total to 614.  What is not officially known is if Rose, from the great beyond, attempted to preserve his record by sending a rabbit onto the track in and into the path of the onrushing Unser and Mears during that lap 107 restart.

My seats on that sweltering day were squarely in the middle of the backstretch bleachers not far from the USAC tower just to our south and across from some maintenance buildings. At this mid-race point, we clearly noticed a rabbit hopping along the bleachers and venturing through the first fence to the concrete wall which lined the inside of the track. 

USAC tower right, Armco barrier wall opening, left (c) 1988, D. Zehr

Back and forth it ran and during the lull of Sullivan’s yellow, more fans began to notice the rabbit and cheered as it darted north and south often along the concrete wall. The track action had quieted a bit as pit stops were made, but the rabbit became increasingly frantic as the cheers grew louder from the stands. Soon the rabbit traveled farther south near a section of steel Armco barrier and the rabbit was now free to enter the track side of the wall.

Unlucky Rabbit’s Foot – Many became concerned as we knew it wouldn’t be long before the cars would exit the pits and be heading down the backstretch. The rabbit stayed to the inside of the track during the first pass of the pace car and field, but as people became more vocal and pointing as if to alert someone of the rabbit’s presence, the rabbit made its worst possible decision as it darted to the outside track wall and began to run against the flow of traffic. As the race went green on lap 107, the field came around a full speed and leader Al Unser’s front outside wing dealt a fatal blow to the rabbit which then passed under his car and was again struck by Mears’ front inside tire.

ABC TV footage screen grab

Unser continued on but his wing was damaged, making it loose-handling. Perhaps the ghost of Mauri Rose directed the rabbit or perhaps it was all a large coincidence, but Al’s day at the lead was effectively halted from the damage. Al continued to lead for another lap, but the yellow again came out for the debris (rabbit carcass) and was passed on the restart by the undamaged chassis of Mears.

All-time Lap Leader – Big Al would stay out as long as possible to remain on the lead lap instead of pitting to change the wing, so he managed to lead one more lap during a subsequent caution and pit cycle, then went a lap down in the pits due to an error with the right rear tire gun and nut install, effectively ending his chance for an unprecedented fifth Indy 500 title. Mears pitted under a later yellow for fresh tires, but stayed ahead of Unser before a final yellow ended the race.
That day was my first race as an adult and first I had attended since my father took me as a child in 1980 when the bright yellow Pennzoil car also won that day, driven by Johnny Rutherford.

Brickyard Legend – Al did finish third in 1988, with all other cars at least one lap down to Mears and second-place Fittipaldi. Al finished the 1988 race leading 14 laps. He later led in 1992 (4 laps) and 1993 (his final 14 laps) finishing his career with a record 644 laps lead. Big Al currently sits at or near the top of the major statistical charts for Indy:
Tied for most Indy 500 wins (4, with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears);
Third in Starts (27, to Mario Andretti’s 29 and A. J. Foyt’s 35);
Second in Miles driven (10,890, to Foyt’s 12,272.5)
Tied for fourth in number of races led (11, with Mario and Scott Dixon, trailing 12 by Helio Castroneves, and 13 by Tony Kanaan and Foyt).

 

(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. 


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.  







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.

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.  

       

(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.



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.



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.
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.




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

  
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