Ground(ed) Effects

Indycar and general autosport opinion

With just hours left of May on the calendar, and in keeping with all good traditions of May, we humbly submit, in the waning moments of May 2018, the ongoing review of my “Greatest 33” following the completion of another sun-scorched and interesting Indy 500. Making this post every year also seems to serve as a bit of a salve for the sting of realizing one of the greatest weekends on my annual calendar is now over.

To briefly review, IMS took great pains to create a special interactive website for the 2011 100th Anniversary race, for which fans could log in and vote for their “Greatest 33” to race at Indy from the 100 or so nominees provided. The site survived for a few years, but has since been taken down.

I had participated in the original, but in wanting to maintain relative fairness, I devised a set of objective criteria I could use to at least help make and rank my selections. I have, as you may have correctly guessed, saved and updated a spreadsheet every year following the Indy 500. Prior posts of mine on this subject can be found by searching this blog’s tags for “Greatest 33”. On the mobile site which lacks the tags feature, you will need to go to previous posts in May find them. Today’s post reflects the changes to the standings from last Sunday’s race and include the points gained from qualifying.

Will Power’s win obviously gives him the most-improved location on my rankings, but he suffers from what many single-time winners who haven’t cracked my Greatest 33 do – notably fewer races, poles, laps led, and top-5 finishes than other single-time winners. In fact there are not many single-time winners on my 33, so only the best of the best for “one-timers”. Mario is the best with one win currently and the best active one-timer is Scott Dixon.

With yet another Top 5 finish for Dixon, he did manage to begin to move up the scoring pylon from 18th to 16th. Dixon’s raw score in my formula actually has him ranked at 13th, however, I’ve also reserved the right to a few intangible calculations in the ranking so I have a hard time pushing him beyond Vuky, Ward, and Rose, all two-time winners with many laps led and similar Top 5 finish counts to Dixon. Scott’s longevity and steady performance keeps him in a close grouping of scores with the legends mentioned, but a second win for Dixon will certainly see him vault up the rankings. As it stands, the Top 5 rows remain unchanged.   


Speaking of active drivers, and since none of the three who currently reside in my Greatest 33 (Helio, Dixon, and Kanaan) won, their places are relatively cemented as previous. Tony Kanaan leading laps again moves his raw score higher than Arie Luyendyk, but remains just behind Arie in my ranking due to Luyendyk being a two-time winner in addition to currently holding the qualifying records set in 1996.

Helio would’ve become a true Titan of Indy if he had won his fourth last Sunday.  Rough projections would see his score rise somewhere into the low 1900s, moving from 6th the 4th on my Greatest 33. 
Next shown is the graphic representation of Rows 6-11 of my latest “Greatest 33”. 
Row 11, if any long-time readers will recall, is a nod the “Last-Row Party” thrown by the Indianapolis Press Club and is reserved for the three best and most notable drivers who never won it.

Will Power now joins active driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and several others just outside my Top 33. That group includes Buddy Lazier, Bobby Rahal, Sam Hanks, Jimmy Bryan, Eddie Cheever Jr., and Danny Sullivan. Other notable and currently active drivers are: Marco Andretti – 56th – 471pts., Ed Carpenter – 64th – 429, Takuma Sato – 65th – 428, and Alexander Rossi – 70th – 398.

Shown below is the spreadsheet ranking as it stands updated following the 102nd Indy 500. 





In all, not much movement in my top 33 rankings as a result of the 102nd Indianapolis 500, but a win by any active winner will certainly see them move into the rarefied air that is “The Greatest 33”.




Oft attributed (but never actually substantiated) to Mark Twain, this kitchy axiom reflects a sense that the truth via factual numbers can be perverted into something in the interest of supporting a position that might need help outside a purely factual representation.


This seems all too commonplace in the era of mass consumerism as most products and services need something akin to facts to help bolster their place in the market. Even market leaders like to “massage the stats” to maintain their advantage.

In the game of sales – for media rights, sponsorships, and financial commitments of all sorts – using relevant statistics to assist can be an Olympian exercise in numerical gymnastics. Indycar as a sport has been well aware of this for decades, and quite acutely following the split of sanctions in 1996.

Even to those who follow me regularly here or on Twitter would have a hard time recalling my stance, and that’s because I’ve never made much of a statement regarding the ‘split of ’96’. I feel that it’s all water under the bridge and focusing forward, with the knowledge of the past, is far more useful than attempting with utter futility to settle a decades-old argument.

In the early days of the ’96 split, I knew what my feelings told me, but we didn’t have the benefit of facts to back up anything we may have wanted to believe or hope. I had a very close friend, who always joined me on the annual Indy 500 trip, who was against the split and vowed to not return to Indy.  I understood this position as my reaction was largely negative to the idea as well.  So much so that I failed to maintain my reserved tickets for the race I’d held since 1988, boycotting by not renewing or attending after 1996. As fate would have it, I wouldn’t have been able to attend the final running in 1997 due to it’s rain delay to Tuesday anyway.

After missing the race for two years, something inside me called me back and I re-ordered tickets for the 1999 race. My bride of 3 years at the time suggested that I might enjoy going back, but that she had seen enough in her two races in ’95 and ’96 to not return if I had no objection. It was alright with me as I knew she really had no interest in being a racing fan. Not really having any new friends who were interested in going, I called my formerly stalwart Indycar friend to see if he wanted to join me. He was surprised I had softened my stance, as he hadn’t.

I attempted to persuade him with some statistics in hopes we could get the band back together and rekindle his love of the race. He said he would give it a chance and we attended the 1999 race, viewing it from a section more northerly in Tower Terrace. The approach of fuel-less Robby Gordon, falling out of the lead directly in front of us on lap 199, was among the most notable dramatic events of that day.

What you see below is a spreadsheet I started in 2000, which I shared with my friend in hopes of maybe showing that the Indy 500 at least was maybe turning for the better. What I had attempted to show following 1999 is that the Indy 500 is on the right trajectory and isn’t really all that different from what we saw as our ‘golden era’ of the late 1980s (HA!). With what little data I could access in the early days of the internet, this is what I sent my friend. 




Out of sheer tradition now, I maintain it to this day. It’s one of those May traditions that now happens in my build-up following qualifying and prior to leaving for Indy and now looks like this.



Despite the original ‘sales’ intent of those very rudimentary numbers from early-2000, it’s now nothing more than a fun, 32-column-wide-and-growing tradition for me now and Indy is all about tradition – even if recalling (and embracing) a not-so-golden era.





The visual sense and how we react to the stimulii is one of a human’s most basal conditions. Especially in this modern era of media, we are bombarded with images appealing, repulsive, and everything in between.


McDonald’s, for example, is among the most prolific in their study of marketplace and more specifically telling perhaps is their devotion via millions of dollars in research over decades to the very topic of visual appeal to ensure the utmost in terms of attractiveness to their products and experience. They are often deemed highly successful in exploiting our own senses for their gain.

For the world of autosport, the fan experience is predicated largely on the sensual perceptions of sight, sound, smell, and, to a lesser degree, touch. I’m not aware that I’ve ever tasted Indycars in action, but I can’t say that I can rule it out either simply because I’ve never put my tongue on one, but several moments have left me with mouth agape.

Most fans who have experienced autosport in person will generally refer to the torrent of sensations related to it that drew them to the sport initially. I would concur. It is also such that it seems difficult to explain to someone who has never been.

Despite however great the IMS radio network has been at creating pictures in the mind’s eye of the action, nothing will replace the experience of being at the track. It’s what makes a day at the track so enjoyable for many – the incredible experience one has that engages most all senses to the maximum.

A very distant second to being at the track is perhaps radio for audible reception or TV coverage for whom the visual is primary. Visual input is perhaps the strongest factor in determining how most receive the experience of autosport.

Something as simple as the static design of the car, and colors and lettering upon it, generate much attention and appreciation by fans. It is the primary effective experience by which the fan can receive other information aside from the racing action itself. With the depth of sensory imprinting on the race fan, the livery is perhaps one of the most critical intersections of art and commerce.

Even in the earliest days of autosport, attention was paid to varying degrees about the visual aspect of the machine and how it relates to those who experience it in person. With the advent of color photographic film, the real beauty of the cars could be displayed to the masses who were not in attendance.

The word “livery” originates in French (“livree”) and was used in reference to a person or thing who was required or given something (a badge, for example) to visually symbolise a connection (or loyalty/ownership). It’s evolved into the automobile age through racing (car’s color and lettering scheme) and we still appreciate them today. It’s oft said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but I also like to more objectively rate the effectiveness of a livery by how quickly I can recall the sponsors associated. I have some major product recall due only to the liveries of cars decades ago. Pennzoil is one fine example of effective association of color and design to me.

Having spent some time watching Indycar practices for the 500, here are the first five sponsors from this year’s Indy 500 entries to date that I can quickly recall at this moment: Arrow, Napa, DHL, Pennzoil, USAF.

Now here are their liveries:




all pictures (c) 2018, LAT Images and their photographic artists
Ask me again tomorrow and the answer likely would swap a couple of others not shown here.

Livery design is a competition within the competition of auto racing I enjoy to watch as well, especially in the build-up to the racing action. Those who can capture the eye likely have a better chance of name retention. Granted, some of the above liveries are a result, as noted above, of many years of consistency and clarity in design, or simplicity of name, but that is also to their credit.

Which liveries appeal to you?

Which ones from this year’s field can you recall within seconds? 

Which ones from years ago do you still quickly recall today?

If you let your brain spit them out without much thought, you might be surprised at what comes first…


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.

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