Figures Don’t Lie, but Liars Figure

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.





Vive La Livery!

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…


Indycar Lore – 1988 Indy 500

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 can only 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).

Overdue Love for Dr. Trammell and the Holmatro Safety Crew

(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.
 
 
 

Here I Go Again

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.



News Update and The Greatest 33 Revisited – 2017

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


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


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


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

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

(drum roll, regal trumpet fanfare)


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Second Race I Attended

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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




The Ugliest Car to Qualify at Indy

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

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

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

A smaller-budget team already battling money, time, and the elements just to have an opportunity to make the show. Their rookie driver Thiago Medeiros, the 2004 Infiniti Pro Series Champion, worked well through his Rookie Orientation Procedure in this cobbled together mess of a G-Force chassis on May 8th: 

(c) 2006, Jim Haines, Motorsport.com

The PDM effort was dealt a serious blow when Medeiros crashed and severely damaged (although judging by aesthetics, that may be a relative term) their lone chassis late in the limited practice of Thursday, May 18.

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

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

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


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

(c) 2006, Dan Vielhaber, Indymotorspeedway.com
(c) 2006, Gavin Lawrence


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

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

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

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

(c) 2006, Earl Ma, Motorsport.com

  

How Tennis Confirmed That I Could Never Drive an Indycar

I play sports as a way to get some exercise, but more as a way to challenge myself and assess my skills. I love to compete – fairly, cleanly, honestly. I play many sports for the competitive aspects or for the enjoyment of learning a sport new to me, but one sport I play simply for the fun of it is tennis. 

Currently my Monday nights are filled with a group of mixed doubles players that originated over 20 years ago. Only one of the original couples from that bunch still plays. They went from being the youngest couple at inception of this group to being the most senior couple currently playing. I’ve been playing with this bunch for about 9 years and am now in the upper half of ages now.

I find myself most excited about chasing down impossible ‘gets’ and returning them, to the dismay of my most-often younger opponents. It’s a part of my DNA apparently, or perhaps I was a Golden Retriever in a previous life and chasing tennis balls is a purely joyful exercise.

Last night was no exception. As my partner and I attacked the net, I anticipated their lob over her and began to track back behind her. Their crisply-struck baby-lob just cleared my partner’s racquet, dropped gently in the back of our court, and was headed away from me. I gave chase and managed at full-tilt to just flick a shot back over my shoulder feeling like it was just solid enough to return to the opponent’s side of the court.

Now is where being the elder and trying a bit too hard became a liability.

My momentum from the all-out sprint, carried me well-beyond the back of the court, and in trying to extend myself fully to get a racquet to the ball, and losing balance, stumbled slightly which did not allow me to slow myself properly before hitting the chainlink fence behind the court. I still have a picture in my head of what I saw right before impact. 

There was a millisecond of silence after the ball left the strings and… >BANG<

I managed to collide with the fence right at a vertical post. With my face. My arms all splayed about trying to complete the list of things, perhaps in the wrong order (flicking the racquet into position for a shot, keeping my balance, protecting my face from the impending impact, etc.). Nevertheless, I quickly recovered to see that the ball was still in play, on the opposite side of the court, being easily volleyed away and we lost the point. 

It hurt.

I still have cuts and abrasions on my forehead and nose… and knee… and elbow… and cheek from the things I saw right before impact. The greatest pain found however, was my bruised ego.

Illuminated for me in an instant was a much more important point that wasn’t tallied in this contest – sometimes trying too hard is not in fact beneficial to the overall result.

It reminded me that what happens in an Indycar isn’t terribly dissimilar, only on a much more severe magnitude.  When I realized that it is, in fact, within my nature to chase things from a nearly-impossible position. I knew that this is a trait which is the precise opposite of what is required to drive an Indycar successfully. 

No driver I’ve ever seen in Indycar has said that they got more out of the car that it gave them. Drivers are instructed quickly very bad things happen when you try that.

Not that I could ever, but I think as Indycar fans, we all harbor the slightest illusion or fantasy of driving and Indycar at race speeds around IMS. Guess what? If you’re reading this, it’s likely in the extreme that you can’t. In fact, pretty close to none of us can do it. Maybe a late-comer to feeling like I have enough evidence to believe this, but far too many people (an many newcomers to Indycar who comment on the live practice feeds) don’t understand the difficulty of racing an Indycar at IMS around such a ‘boring’ oval.

I’ve even been fortunate enough to have done the two-seater ride and the single-seater ride at IMS. According to what I was told, my gear-limited top speed driving myself was approximately 149 mph. On the straights it was thrilling.  In the corners it was really quite overwhelming to the senses. And this was only approximately at 60% of what the current drivers experience, NOWHERE near the limits of adhesion that they deal with every corner of every high-speed lap. It was a bit of a eye-opener for me, realizing that there is something I could never physically or mentally do.

Not without smashing into a fence at some point anyway.

So, while watching these drivers on TV, try to realize that what appears quite like a simple Sunday drive around a simple four-turn course, isn’t, and is something you most likely will never be able to. Appreciate the subtleties of high-speed oval racing.

Even if you can’t see them, understand they’re there and that because they make it look easy, should indicate just how great these drivers are.

Wake Up The Echoes

The line “wake up the echoes”, as almost everyone from the northern part of Indiana would recall, is a lyric from the Notre Dame Victory March. The line is set within a stanza implores one to recall and revive the glories past;

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame, 

Wake up the echoes cheering her name, 

Send a volley cheer on high, 
Shake down the thunder from the sky.

Growing up where I did, Notre Dame football and the Indianapolis 500 once held an unparalleled significance in both long-standing tradition and celebration on an annual basis. I still see similarities with this sentiment and the opening day at IMS.

Opening day of 500 practice reminds us of a few things that acknowledge time and place; another year has ticked by, we have indeed survived another winter (which for Northern Indiana tends to be a bleak and oppressive 4 months), the optimism of spring is well and truly beset around us, the greening of the landscape signals the onset of more comfortable climes, and the quickening of pace to all things Indiana, especially the cars at Indy. My recent visit to the Indycar Grand Prix followed by this opening day also has awoken my restful desire to write here again. 


After being at IMS this past weekend, I appreciate how I find something special each visit there. Whether recalling specific visits or events past, or how the physical grounds and surroundings change over the years, or a mixture of people, time, and place, each visit seems unique and never repetitive. This past weekend I was not only engrossed with the racing, but also noticing what’s new around the track and in the museum.

Of special note to me was the A.J. Foyt exhibit in the museum and the demolished Lola tub on display that had been saved from his horrific crash at Road America in 1990. It takes very little imagination to see what damage was done to his body in that crash.

While presented as a testament to his incredible toughness and desire to return to racing following that crash, I am also reminded of how incredibly dangerous this endeavor is, despite the ongoing improvements to safety. Maybe it’s my steadily advancing age, or the fact that I’ll be attending my 30th Indy 500 this year, or that I’ve been following the sport for around 40 of my 49 years, but the fragility of life in the profession of Indycar racing seems all the more apparent now. In light of the length of my Speedway history, Hinchcliffe’s crash still seems like yesterday to me.

There is that dark and rarely officially discussed thread of mayhem and death woven into the history of the Speedway and while there is no need to glorify it, I also feel it quite important and well overdue to more suitably, publicly, and solemnly honor, via a permanent museum place or exterior monument, all those (fans included) who have given their lives from the events within the confines of the Speedway.

There really needs to be no shame in doing so, I feel. The drivers all eagerly acknowledge this risk in trade for thrills, riches, and glory. To publicly exhibit some condolence to those who were far less fortunate seems a fitting and necessary counter-balance to the weight of glory.

Many acknowledge a ‘spirit of the Speedway’ that they experience when visiting. While difficult to substantiate in a logical way, I’ve felt it as well nearly every visit. I don’t think it a stretch to consider that something well beyond our understanding may be ‘touching’ our psyche in those moments and to me, it feels as if it is from those who are gone.

Hokey-sounding perhaps, but I can assure you something I’ve experienced, and not imagined. 

So before I succumb to the annual rites of celebration and ‘shaking down of the thunder’ that arrive with my annual trip to the Speedway for the Indy 500 weekend, I’m feeling the need to take a moment today, this opening day at IMS, in solemn reflection of those whose lives were forever altered or mortally concluded at the Speedway. 

If nothing else, I’ll take those moments when they come (much like today) to consider the lives lost at the speedway and extend into the sky/universe a solemn acknowledgement of their sacrifice.