INDYCAR partners with Red Bull Advanced Technologies to push driver safety forward with the next generation of cockpit protection By Steve Wittich For over a century the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has led the way in safety innovations in racing. From today’s announcement about the next evolution in driver cockpit protection, through the I-PAS goggles…
Archives for TSO Features
TSO Feature (no sub. required) — INDYCAR partners with Red Bull Advanced Technologies to push driver safety forward with the next generation of cockpit protection
TSO Feature – Long time TSO Subcriber, who started coming to the Indianapolis 500 in 1948, previews this years 103rd Indianapolis 500
Note from Steve: Once again, we welcome Butch Welsch to TSO. Butch is our favorite guest writer during the “Month of May,” and his yearly previews are a must read. Butch has been to every Indianapolis 500 since 1948 – this year will be his 72nd in a row.. He has been sitting in the front row of the Paddock Penthouse near the start/finish line since those seats were added in 1961. Butch is in the heating and cooling business and Welsch Heating & Cooling has sponsored Robby McGehee in the past and also owns a 1937 midget.
By Butch Welcsh
It appears that every year it becomes more difficult to handicap the field for the Indy “500”. The reason is that every year IT IS more difficult because the quality and the closeness of the field means that there is a possibility of 20 or so different drivers taking the checkered flag first. Compare that to Formula 1. I’ll pick two and give you the other 18 and take my chances. Not in Indy Car. That said I am committed to pass along my thoughts regarding this year’s field of 33.
First a few general comments. We have no pre-500 oval races to provide us with information on how the teams will react to an oval. This year I am not really taking into account whether a driver is powered by a Honda or a Chevy. This really seems to be a non-issue. They both seem to be very close in speed and reliability issues have not surfaced either. It appears that the key to this year’s race has to do with the team’s ability to get the right balance in the handling of the car. We’ve heard multiple statements in interviews about how different the four turns are to drive, with the emphasis on the difficulty in turn 2. For us old timers, it seemed like turn 3 was always the trickiest one, but that has seemed to have changed to turn two.
In fact, the accidents which have occurred, except for Alonzo’s where he just drifted high in turn 3 and pancaked the wall, have all occurred in turn 2, and starting at about the same position on the track. I will now share a real concern I have about this year’s race. The cars which have spun in turn 2 did do with apparently very little or no warning to the driver. I am concerned that if cars are running in the 10 to 15 car packs which we have seen in recent years, if someone loses control like that, with many cars behind him or her, it could be a very serious situation. I hate to be an alarmist but I do think it is something that we will have to watch for.
To summarize, the team which has the ability to make the right changes and improvements to the car’s handling is going to be the one which can pass anywhere and therefore has the best chance to be in front at the end.
So on to my thoughts about this year’s field. I have split them into 3 groups again. Group 1 The most likely; Group 2 the group that if luck falls their way they might do it and finally Group 3, the group that is not going to be drinking the milk on race day.
Starting with the front row. Simon Pagenaud, who a month ago seemed to be in a tenuous position in his job, now is coming off a win in the Indy Grand Prix and his first pole win at the Speedway. Momentum and confidence are an important motivating factor in any sport and that includes auto racing. With his new found confidence, not to mention his Penske team there to make adjustments, certainly puts the Frenchman near the top of the favorites.
Ed Carpenter has shown year in and year out to have speed at the Speedway. Since he grew up at the place, I have wondered if he sneaks out at night and practices racing around the track – he is that good at the Speedway. He is coming off of a close second place finish last year and would love to finish that one place higher. I’m not sure that his team can produce the lightening like pits stops of a Penske, but am sure that an Ed Carpenter win would produce a crowd reaction rivaling that we heard when Tony Kanaan won in 2013.
For my next top group pick, I have gone to fifth starter, Will Power. Will obviously got a big weight off of his shoulders by winning last year. There is no reason to assume that he has slowed down any, and he still has the Penske team making those important pit stops. The only asterisk for Will is that it is very uncommon for there to be back to back winners at the Speedway. Helio Castro Neves was the last in 2001 and 2002 while the previous one before that was Al Unser, Sr. in 1970 and 1971. The odds are not with Will this year.
Keeping with the Penske theme is last year’s Series Champion, Josef Newgarden. This youngster is fast and has obviously shown his consistency by winning the Championship. His luck has not been great at the Speedway with an 8th, 19th, and 3rd the last three years. I truly believe he eventually will be a multi-time winner as he matures. Again, he has the Penske knowledge to help keep up with the car’s handling. Being almost a local boy, since he is from Nashville, a win would be extremely popular.
The 2016 winner. Alexander Rossi, is the highest starting driver from the Michael Andretti stable. After some of the outside passes which Alexander pulled off in 2018, in order to wind up fourth, and since he is in the same car from the same team he definitely has to be high on the favorites list. A first, seventh and fourth in his 3 starts is also impressive. A win would not be surprising.
Marco Andretti has compiled an excellent record at the Speedway, but has just never had that little bit of luck needed to be the winner. Will we ever forget in 2006 when Marco was trailed by his dad at the head of the straightaway coming to the checkered flag and then they both got passed by Sam Hornish as they came to the line. Since he is usually near the front, if Marco can shed the Andretti jinx, a win would be possible.
The Penske driver starting the furthest back is surprisingly Helio Castro Neves. His credentials need no explanation. He is a 3-time winner who would love no more than to join that small club of 4 timers. His concentration is now on sports cars and I wonder if the same intensity and drive are still there? It would, however, be really neat to see him climb the fence for the fourth time.
Tony Kanaan carries the AJ Foyt racing colors from the inside of row 6. Tony is still probably the most popular of Indy Car drivers and the fans would love to see him drink the milk again. The question here is not skill or motivation but whether or not the team can make the changes necessary to stay up with an ever-changing track to keep the car handling to Tony’s satisfaction.
Last but certainly not least in the top group is none other than 18th starting Scott Dixon. It is a real shock to have Scott starting that far back. However, Scott didn’t become a five-time series champion without possessing the ability to overcome adversity. After all, this is a 500-mile race, with around 8 pit stops, and plenty of time for his excellent Chip Ganassi team to make the necessary handling adjustments to put Scott up near the front.
So this completes my group 1. You will note it has only 9. It was extremely difficult separating some of the Group 2 drivers from Group 1 and I could have just added 2 from Group 2 into Group 1. However, I have to go with what I feel are the realistic chances keeping in mind not only the driver but the ability of each team to perform flawlessly. So, on to Group 2.
It may not seem right to put the drivers who are starting 3rd and 4th into Group 2. However, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones are both out of the Ed Carpenter team. While they have shown good speed at the Speedway, there is still the question of whether or not the team can deliver the pit stops and handling changes necessary to send either one of them to victory lane. It’s true that Jones should have been Rookie of the Year in 2017 when he finished 3rd in a Dale Coyne car, only to be out politicked by Fernando Alonzo. However his performance in a Ganassi car last year was less than stellar. Pigot’s record of an 18th and 19th in the last two “500” are not representative of a challenger. It would be fun to see a car from Ed Carpenter’s team take the checkered flag first, but the boss has the best chance.
The surprise of 2019 has been the performance of Colton Herta and the Harding Steinbrenner team. They have outperformed far and above expectations. That said, however, Colton is a young rookie and the Harding Team is still really in its early stages. While they have a win at The Circuit of the America’s, this is a 500-mile oval track race, and a top ten finish would be an excellent day for this driver and team.
Sebastien Bourdais has an excellent third-row starting position and his Championships in the CART Series are certainly testimonies to his ability. However, I don’t feel that the Dale Coyne Team, even with Vasser and Sullivan, have all of the ingredients to avoid the mistakes which can’t happen for a driver to win over this closely bunched field.
It was with a considerable amount of thought that I have put Takuma Sato and his Teammate Bobby Rahal in Group 2. For Sato, when it all came together under the Andretti Autosports banner in 2017, there was Tako in Victory Lane. However, the Rahal Team is not the same team as Andretti and while they have made steps to improve, they haven’t shown the ability to consistently be a winner in a race as long as the 500. Graham has experienced a mediocre record at the Speedway and the fact that he qualified all the way back in 17th position, makes one wonder if the team has the track figured out this year. An All-American boy from a great pedigree would make a good story but I don’t feel that they are in that position at this time.
Oriol Servia comes to the Speedway each year and typically shows speed. He is a driver who, if everything fell his way could be a surprise. This year he is with the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team and this is a “one-off” race for him. If Oriol had a full-time ride with one of the top teams I believe he might be challenging for the season’s championship. In his current role, a top 10 finish would be a good day for him.
I am delighted to see Dreyer and Reinbold back at the Speedway again this year. Every year they step up to the plate and bring one or two cars. Since they only run at the Speedway, experience has shown that their odds of a top finish are not very good. In Group 2 we have J. R. Hildebrand. I feel J.R. deserves to be in Group 2 because he has shown an ability to be competitive at the Speedway. If anyone should feel the Speedway owes him one – especially the fourth turn – it’s J.R. Hildebrand. While I’m not sure the one-off team can carry him to the win if everything fell into place he is a driver who could definitely race his way home and you can be sure he would make sure he made it through the 4th turn without incident. We’ll get to the D&R second car in group 3.
Next up is a guy who is probably one of the 3 most popular guys at the Speedway, with Tony Kanaan and Ed Carpenter. He is James Hinchcliffe. Hinch had to battle his way into the field through the last row shootout because of his Saturday morning crash. This is a guy who is the type that is the heart and soul of the Speedway. If a guy could be
“willed” into the winner’s circle it would be the Mayor of Hinchtown. Unfortunately, a 31st starting spot is not conducive to a win, so hopefully next year all of the pieces will fall the right way for him to take home the big prize.
The nest Andretti Autosport’s driver was one of the biggest surprises and disappointments of qualifying this year. Ryan Hunter-Reay and his team just never seemed to get their arms around the handling of the car this May. As a result, he is mired all of the way back in the 22nd starting position. While it isn’t impossible to win from that far back in the pack, with the quality of contenders ahead of him, coupled with their inability to get an understanding of their car’s handling, I’m sorry to say that I think this previous winner is in for a long day on Sunday.
Starting way back in 25th position, Jack Harvey has been one of the real pleasant surprises of this young 2019 season. The driver of the Meyer Shank with SPM Racing entry has been very consistent and competitive. We also can’t forget that Jack was running second last year a few laps from the end when he had to make a “splash of fuel” pit stop. My note: I thought either he or the front runner Oriol Servia would take a gamble and go as far as their fuel would take them. A yellow flag around that time might have put one of them into the winner’s circle. But I digress. The point is, that while it is unlikely there is always a possibility of Jack Harvey being the surprise of the day.
That takes us to Group 3. One of the disadvantages of having 33 cars in the field when only 22 are running on a regular basis is that you have several cars and drivers that have only limited experience working together. It appears that today, more than ever, it is a team sport where the driver needs to be able to communicate with the crew and the crew needs to be able to translate those communications into the proper adjustments to the car. It just isn’t as easy when you are only working together for one race.
Conor Daly happily got a ride this year as part of the Andretti Autosports team. He is a great young kid with talent as his 11th starting spot would attest. Unfortunately, his past experiences at the Speedway have been less than stellar and this is essentially his deal for the year. Given a full year with one of the top three teams it would be interesting to see how Conor would fair. However, this year, given the circumstances, he is another for whom a top ten would be a very successful day.
Another Schmidt Peterson car has former Formula 1 chauffeur, Rookie Marcus Erickson, behind the wheel. Hopefully, he will get some laps in and we will get a chance to see what this road course racer can do on an oval. Charlie Kimball is another runner who is in a one-off ride with Carlin Racing. Charlie campaigned with Carlin previously and also had a stint with Chip Ganassi Racing. He has been a competent mid-pack racer but has seldom shown an ability to run up front.
For another year James Davison has managed to get a ride out of the Dale Coyne stable. This year there is additional support from Byrd Racing and Belardi. Byrd is a continuation of Jonathan Byrd Racing whose participation at the Speedway goes back many years. Their initial contact with racing was through midgets and they are to be commended for bringing several of those open wheel young Americans to the Speedway. Belardi meanwhile has been a very strong supporter of the Indy Car Road to Indy program. It is nice to see them get their feet wet by participating in the “big show” as well. They have limited on-track experience together, but it would be nice to see Davison complete the 500 miles somewhere in the top 15.
Rookie Santino Ferrucci is here compliments of Dale Coyne Racing and is running the full season with DCR. He is another driver with very limited experience on an oval and will hopefully stay in the race long enough to get some laps and experience under his belt.
The second car in the A.J. Foyt team is handled by Marcus Leist. This is Marcus’ second year in the Series with the Foyt team. Last year he recorded a 13th place finish at the Brickyard. A.J. is working to help this young man gain the experience to feel comfortable on ovals.
Jordan King is in the 3rd car on track from Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan. Jordan is another driver with very limited Speedway experience. He like several of these young drivers needs to run a bunch of laps at the Speedway to get a full feel of the 2 ½ mile oval.
Ben Hanley is a new driver with a completely new-to-Indycar team named DragonSpeed. Hanley did an excellent job of working himself up to speed on the oval.
The first couple of practice days he was the slowest on the speed charts. As that first week of the practice continued, he got a little faster each day to the point where on Saturday he was able to qualify in the top 30. That was one of the biggest, unheralded accomplishments of qualifying. Unfortunately, a rookie driver with a brand new team is not likely to challenge for the lead, but he is another one who, with some experience under his belt may be one to keep an eye on.
Zach Veach is in one of the other Andretti Autosport’s entries. Zach has worked extremely hard to get to this position in racing and deserves some success. So far, however, despite being with the strong Andretti team he has not produced the high finishes one would expect. Perhaps this will be the race he will stand out and his star will shine. I believe a top 10 finish would be just what the doctor ordered.
Another one of the big disappointments of the earlier part of May was the plight of Felix Rosenquist. Felix had shown good speed at previous tracks and was sometimes quicker than his Ganassi teammate, Scott Dixon. Unfortunately, he got a little low in turn 2 during practice resulting in a hair raising ride and significant contact with the outside and inside walls. While his team was able to put a car back together for him, in the limited amount of practice remaining before qualifying, he didn’t show the spark of speed he had shown earlier. This resulted in a 29th starting place following qualifying. Hopefully, with the Monday practice and Carb day, he will regain his confidence and be able to move up to a position closer to where he was expected to run.
One of the feel good stories of this and any year at the Speedway is the fact that Pippa Mann successfully qualified in the top 30 and thus avoided the Sunday 6 car shootout. The emotion and tears she showed at the conclusion of Saturday qualifying is a beautiful testament as to how much just being in the 500 means to this young lady. No one helps promote the sport more than Pippa. She is continuously on social media doing or saying something that is positive about the sport of auto racing and the Indy 500 in particular. The other thing that makes this accomplishment special is that the team for whom Pippa is driving is owned by Clausen Marshall racing. For those not aware, Tim Clausen is the father of open wheel champion and previous Indy 500 starter, Brian Clausen, who unfortunately was killed in a midget race at Belleville, Kansas. Since then, Tim Clausen and the Clausen’s close friend Richard Marshall have campaigned midgets in the USAC National Midget series providing excellent drives and equipment for up and coming drivers. They wanted to take it a step further and move onto the Indianapolis Speedway and chose Pippa, I believe for her dedication to the sport which coincides with theirs. It is of note that Clausen and Marshall were also part of the very successful BC39 midget race held inside the third turn at IMS last September. The BC39 is for Brian Clausen and his favored number 39. While my heart would love to see Pippa do well, my head says I hope she has a good safe race and completes the entire 500 miles. By the way, her car number is 39.
Starting on the inside of row 11 and one of the successful drivers at the shootout is Dryer and Reinbold driver Sage Karem. Sage is driving as a teammate to J.R. Hildebrand. Sage is from the Nazareth PA area, the home of the Andrettis, and is another driver who has paid his dues to get into the 500. Unfortunately, this too is a one time ride, but hopefully Sage will be able to show off his talent sufficiently enough that it will lead to other opportunities.
The 33rd driver on the list is another one of the exceptional feel good stories from this year’s Indy 500. The driver is Kyle Kaiser and his team is Juncos Racing. Juncos has been a supporter of the “Road to Indy” who is also working to break into the big show.
They are not a well-funded team and, in fact, were running their Speedway car with a blank white paint job – not a sponsor name in sight. Unfortunately, Kyle was a victim of the turn 2 issues which have been a problem and substantially tore apart his blank white car. Fortunately, Kyle was uninjured in the accident, but there was concern following the accident as to whether or not Juncos had the resources to put a replacement car back together for Kyle.
Ricardo Juncos was not to be denied. Under his direction, the team worked 48 hours in a row putting together pieces from spare cars to make a competitive speedway machine. They even avoided the brief Sunday morning practice session in order to make sure everything was as safely and properly put together on the car as possible. When the track had been dried and prepared for the 6 car shootout for the last three positions, there was the car number 32 in its proper place in line. A little editorializing here. I saw the car and got some pictures of the car going through tech, just prior to them pushing it out into the qualifying line. I’ll be polite and say it didn’t look like a Penske masterpiece. It was clear that pieces had been gathered from different cars and the mix of various paint schemes was obvious. It did appear that they had been very careful in the areas of safety and aerodynamics.
Now it is time. The other 5 cars have made their qualifying attempts and posted their speeds. Who is on the bubble but none other than two-time world champion Fernando Alonzo. Kaiser took to the track and a short 4 minutes later returned with a qualifying speed that was, in fact, quicker than Alonzo’s. The cheers from the crowd and the tears from the team were overwhelming. If there was ever a case of a little team proving that it could succeed at the Speedway this was it. I’m not sure where Kyle will end up after 500 miles, but in my eyes, he is already a champion. I just hope he has a safe race.
There you have it. One person’s thoughts regarding what I believe is going to be an exciting 500-mile race.
TSO Feature Blogger – J.R. Hildebrand – “The first day of practice was a good, solid start towards our team’s overall Indy 500 program.”
TSO would like to welcome J.R. Hildebrand as our guest blogger for the “Month of May.” The eight-time Indianapolis 500 starter is back with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for a second year with software as a service provider Salesforce.com returning to sponsor the Sausalito, Calif. native. We’re looking forward to Hildebrand’s insight on what goes on behind the scenes in Gasoline Alley between the driver, his crew and engineering staff.
Hi, this is J. R. Hildebrand and thanks for keeping track with us this May. I returned to the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team for the 103rd Indy 500 and I’m excited to drive the No. 48 Salesforce Chevrolet. This year’s Salesforce machine is running the No. 48 in tribute to one of my heroes, the late and great Dan Gurney. Many of Dan’s Indy cars over the years campaigned the No. 48, so I thought it would be a great tribute to Dan. We are running the same script 48 as Dan’s All American Racers team.
Coming back to Indy is always special since it is the most significant auto race in the world and my passion to compete here is always strong. So, I thought I would give the TSO readership an idea of what goes on in the garages with our engineers and our crew.
Tuesday was the first practice on the famous 2.5-mile oval track, and I was excited to get back on the racing surface after we ran a few laps in the Indy 500 testing last month. After getting through our refresher laps at the test, I was able to run in the morning session with the NTT IndyCar Series regular and veterans.
We did a lot of running of the car Tuesday including 113 laps. There were a lot of new items on the cars with the various aero setups and we wanted to see how those pieces worked. Early on, we ran our laps alone and went through the list of changes with my engineer, Eric Petersen, and Sage’s engineer, Jeff Britton. Jeff has been at IMS for decades and knows this place. Eric is new to DRR but not IndyCars and racing in general. Jeff and Eric worked together back in the 2000s with the Rahal Letterman team. And I have the 2004 Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice as my turn one spotter, as well. Buddy brings a great perspective to the overall DRR team, from his past driving career as well as watching the action from high above turn one.
We ran a full range of aero pieces today and collected a lot of data. So, we ran many laps on Tuesday. We didn’t want to run in big packs until the end of the day. Once we had tested out what we had done with the new stuff on the car, we decided to get in the mix with some packs. And we ran with a full fuel load too. We ran a pretty decent number and the car felt good for the end of the first day of practice.
After 113 laps, I feel good in the car. Not tired. It always good to out and just run laps. The weather was a little warmer than predicted. And, with the new sealer on the track surface, it was a good chance to really see how the track would be throughout the day. With a longer day, it conditioned your vision and body to being back at IMS after not being in a car for some time. Especially when you are not fulltime.
The DRR guys have done an outstanding job with the race car. It looks great and I feel we are on a trajectory and direction that will keep us getting more out of the car. I feel comfortable in the car after the first day and that we have a grasp of what we need from it. Last year, at the end of the first day, we and everyone else had no idea what was going on right now with this new car. But this year, it feels pretty good.
There were some big numbers put up on Tuesday and it didn’t really surprise me. These guys are pros. They are going to get out there and get with the program right away. For me, you have a few nerves wanting to get out there on the track. We got a little taste of what it was going to be like at the end of the test. And I felt there were some things we needed to improve to feel really racey.
After the test, that sits with you for a few weeks and then you get antsy to want to work to make the car better. I feel better at the end of the day on Tuesday, then the end of the day yesterday when I was getting ready and thinking about practice runs.
Eric and I worked together well on Tuesday and we’ll continue to communicate. And I think we’ll get to understand each other’s language as we move along. But right now, it seems very good. We are on the same page.
I look forward to the rest of the practice week.
By Brant James
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The driver lineup has expanded and contracted and morphed. The race car has evolved in a multitude of ways. The downtown streets and airport runway on which the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is contested has even been paved in the previous 14 iterations of the race.
But each spring when the IndyCar series reconvenes here, Team Penske establishes itself as the benchmark. And the latest installment suddenly appears much the same, despite Will Power’s and Josef Newgarden’s frustration over the first two days of the season-opener.
It’s hard to argue otherwise too profusely after Power on Saturday won his eighth pole in 12 tries here – 11 with Penske – and has Newgarden starting beside him on the front row.
Power, whose best lap time of 1:00.4594 was best among his foils in the Fast Six – and the speediest IndyCar lap of the weekend – coyly attempted to credit his Saturday performance on a nap he snuck during the afternoon as his young son, Beau slept in his motor coach. But there had been no nap in the case in the previous seven, or his wins at the track in 2010 and 2014, or the two runner-up finishes. Granted, Power qualifies well broadly, as his 55th career moved him within 12 of Mario Andretti’s record.
But the nap certainly had nothing to do with Helio Castroneves winning on the 1.8-mile circuit a series-best three times, Juan Pablo Montoya twice and Ryan Briscoe once.
“I was kind of fresh,” Power asserted. “It’s been a tough weekend. We were tenth in practice and we just slowly worked on the car and got it better and better and better and even in qualifying we were making some kind of big changes. By the time we got to the Fast 6 we had a reasonable car, a good car, obviously.
“I was over the moon. I really didn’t think I would get pole. I knew Josef had really good tires and he had a similar car to me. Just happy for the team. We were on the back foot starting this weekend.”
Penske resources certainly allow the team to work on numerous areas of improvement during the offseason, likely giving it an advantage no matter where the season starts. Its damper program is purported to have made much to do with its early success when St. Petersburg joined the schedule in 2005 and Castroneves won two of the first three races.
And resources also allow Penske nimbleness when flaws are discovered and improvements are needed in a race weekend. Such, Newgarden said, was this case by qualifying because he, Power, and teammate Simon Pagenaud were denizens of the mid-pack on Friday. In the process, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay went from dominating the speed charts to again chasing Team Penske.
“We got a good group. I mean it comes down to the people,” Newgarden said. “We didn’t have the best cars yesterday. We just didn’t. We were scrapping to get in the top ten yesterday. We made a big leap today, and it takes people to do that. You have to be able to put good people together, and you have to be able to work through it every weekend and I think we do that. I would say we do that the best. So that’s what made the difference today, going over everything last night and making the jump and that obviously includes Chevy.
“The way they integrate with us is a big part of it. But it’s people. Roger preaches it, but you have to have the right people around each other and you have to have the right mindset and I think that’s why we got good cars around here. I think that’s generally why we have good cars on qualifying day and we figure it out.”
TSO was very fortunate to be able to bring Brant James on to help us out on this super busy weekend. I (Steve) and Patrick will never pretend to be feature writers, but Brant is one of the best in the business. Exhibit A. is below.
By Brant James
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Robert Wickens rotated eagerly to his left and pulled in selfie-close with friend and teammate James Hinchcliffe. He was already smiling.
As the girl in the gray “Wickens 6” t-shirt snapped her souvenir and threaded the theater ropes to exit the IndyCar drivers autograph line on Friday, Wickens resumed scrawling his signature on anything placed on the table before him. Hero cards, t-shirts, hats.
It might not have been a completely banal day at the office for any of the drivers assembled in the midway inside the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg circuit. A season-opener incites a certain eagerness, especially with such a welcoming throng. But Wickens seemed to smile more than most and relish this more than most. He was different because he was lone among them in not wearing a fire suit in preparation for practice in less than an hour.
And then there was the wheelchair.
Two hundred and one days since Wickens sustained a thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion after crashing into a catch fence at Pocono Raceway, the 29-year-old Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was back at a race track for the first time. One year ago at this race course, Wickens had been a veteran rookie of sorts, given his breadth of experience in sports cars, who announced his intentions in IndyCar by winning the pole and battling Alexander Rossi for the win on the final lap. He was sixth in the driver standings before the crash with Ryan Hunter-Reay began a comeback from paralysis marked with surprising progress recently that he hopes will eventually allow him back into a race car.
This year, though buoyed by what has admittedly looked and felt like incredible progress – “sexy steps,” he calls them – Wickens’ race weekend activities included almost every normal item except driving. Hinchcliffe knew it could not be normal at all.
“I think coming into it he thought it was going to be a normal day,” he said of Friday. “I saw him [Thursday] night and I was like, ‘Man, you haven’t been out in public yet, really. And I know how often I get stopped just getting asked about you. The fact that you’re going to be there, this is not going to be a normal day at the race track for you.’”
A spate of inaccurate and unauthorized reporting about his condition prompted Wickens’ family to release the full extent of his injuries. He chose to document his recovery on social media, Hinchcliffe said, partly because so little was available online to guide him. In doing so, he became a rarity for athletes in general and race car drivers particularly in revealing such vulnerability. Wickens learned the result of that in very personal proximity after arriving at the track.
“He’s seen the messages online and the messages he’s gotten and all the rest of it, but to be in a big group, to be in public and really see that human connection is a special thing,” said Hinchcliffe, whose every move was mobbed at St. Petersburg in 2016 in his first race since a horrific crash practicing for the Indianapolis 500. “And it’s a bit overwhelming. You don’t realize how many people are paying attention, and in his case, especially, taking inspiration from what he’s done.
“It’s not just the casual fan. It’s the people who are injured and people who are sick that are really getting inspiration from Robby, and that’s an element that he didn’t realize. And I experienced some of that as well and that’s the most rewarding thing. You’re just trying to get yourself better but at the same time inspiring other people to get better and motivate them to stick with it in a bad situation, that’s something that’s a knock-on bonus of the whole thing.”
Hinchcliffe marveled at his friend’s schedule this weekend. He’d not been nearly as ambitious when he visited his hometown race in Toronto just a few months after his life-threatening internal injuries.
“I was still probably a bit premature. Robbie is Robbie and Robbie is happy and healthy in a lot of ways,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was still a little premature, probably to be at the track, so I did nothing. I walked from my bus to the grid and the only appearance I did was with Make-A-Wish and Honda Canada.
“I kind of kept my schedule clean. He has a busier schedule than any driver here this weekend. He’s really filled it up. He’s so appreciative of what he’s gotten from everyone he’s trying to give back now. He’s on a much more noble program than I was my first day back.”
Wickens said he “100 percent” intends to work hard enough to return as a driver, but he’s cognizant that at some point his progress will plateau. He is already contemplating a return using hand controls like Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs in a 2001 CART crash. He seems more bothered by the notion that however, not whenever, he returns, he’ll have to cope with the reality of not being the same driver who raced with such daring and success in 2018.
“Anything is possible,” Wickens said. “I know I’m a hard worker, analytical. I think I could get on top of hand controls. My only fear is that I always wanted to get back into racing as I left off, on the same level that I left off. I don’t want to be just a driver in the field. I want to be one competing to win the podiums like I was when I went out. That’s kind of the main thing for me.”
The autograph session over, Wickens whisked himself through the theater ropes and out into the midway, where his progress was stopped five times by well-wishers and autograph-seekers. A few related to Wickens how his attempt inspired them. Out of the bustle of the fan zone, the new routine continued in a secluded spot near where the race course curls right past Pioneer Park. After a pause, Wickens vaulted himself from his wheelchair into the passenger side of a waiting golf cart before his fiancée, Karli Woods, folded it as she has innumerable times and positioned it securely on the back.
A gate opened and Wickens was on to his next commitment, finding the new normal, still searching for the old one.
Reviewing Born Racer – the Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing film about commitment is available today
Steve’s movie review:
A person who competes in races is the simplistic definition of racer that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.
For those that compete in the high risk, high reward world of Indy car racing that simple five letter word has so much more meaning. And, adding the appellation born before racer, brings that level of reverence to another level.
Born Racer, a documentary film covering Kiwi Scott Dixon’s 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season from the Indianapolis 500 through the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, succeeds in ushering the viewer into the up and down world of Dixon as he pursues a fifth championship.
The film, produced and directed by fellow New Zealanders, Matthew Metcalfe and Bryn Evans, was born from a mutual admiration of the second generation race car driver.
Metcalfe, who also produced the Bruce McLaren biography, McLaren, first heard of Dixon when his father raced against a then 14-year-old in a vintage race. Metcalfe reached out Evans, who he had been interested in working with for some years, and the director of the Hip Hop-eration was interested in making a film about autosport. It was “kismet” that Dixon was the subject that they both had in mind.
The glimpse into the roller coaster 2017 season of the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 9 team begins with a simple yet effective statement from team owner Chip Ganassi – “We live to race. There is nothing else.”
The documentary that clocks in at just over 90 minutes utilizes ten storytellers to piece together the central theme of the film, which in producer Metcalfe’s words is “when you commit to winning, you also commit to losing.”
When the film begins, Dixon is getting into his race car to qualify for the 101st Indianapolis 500, while his wife of ten years, Emma Davies Dixon, paces in the background and we hear her voice quiver with emotion while saying:
“We just don’t talk about the dangers, really. It’s like, we just don’t. I’d like to sometimes, but we don’t want to put that into his head either. I’ve married a guy that unless he’s going really fast, he doesn’t feel alive. He feels euphoric when he’s chancing death.”
Over the course of the seven hours from when the Gasoline Alley opens at 5 AM on Indianapolis 500 race day to the command to start the engines, we meet that other eight storytellers.
Team owner and former Indy car driver Chip Ganassi has won four Indianapolis 500 and 10 Indy car championship as an owner and is focused on winning the Indianapolis 500, the IndyCar Championship and IndyCar race wins only, in that order.
Mike Hull, a former Formula Ford racer and Jim Russel driving instructor, helped launch Chip Ganassi Racing in 1992 and is currently the managing director and Dixon’s race strategist.
Dixon’s race engineer since 2015, Chris Simmons was a second-generation racer before moving onto the timing stand and winning two Indianapolis 500s and three INDYCAR championships with Dario Franchitti.
Kate Gundlach, the new assistant engineer from a family of racers that began her career in racing as a volunteer mechanic in Pro Mazda.
Fellow Kiwi and crew chief on the No. 9 Blair Julian, who has been working on Dixon’s car for all 44 of his Indy car wins.
Kenny Szymanski is a legendary tire technician that has worked with Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna.
Rounding out the list of raconteurs are former teammates and friends Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan.
With the help of these ten voices, unprecedented access within the Chip Ganassi Racing team and the Dixon’s own home, for the first time in history, the viewer becomes part of the team that experiences the highs and lows of the 2017 season.
Get ready to feel the same emotions as the team from the horrifying shunt on Lap 53 101st Indianapolis 500, to a remarkable drive at Road America and cumulating with disappointment in California Wine County.
On the red carpet
The Born Racer premiere was held at the IMAX Theatre at the Indiana State Museum.
Producer Matthew Metcalfe
Metcalfe, who’s next film project is a biography of Australian MotoGP legend Wayne Gardner, is beginning to put together a stellar list of motorsport films. The Kiwi also produced the Bruce McLaren biography McLaren.
Here is Metcalfe’s full quote about commitment.
“What I really like about the film is that it really speaks to a really simple theme, which is; when you commit to winning, you also commit to losing. And, that’s a really cool life lesson for everyone. This idea that when you commit to winning, you can’t win all the time. So if you commit to winning, you’ve got to understand that sometimes you’ve got to lose. But, it’s how you deal with that loss that defines you as a winner.
“And, in the case of Scott, he had that terrible year last year, but he still kept driving forward, he still kept pushing forward. Fighting all the way to the end. All the way to Sonoma. He could have won his fifth championship a year ago. I respect that commitment, it’s incredible.”
Metcalfe also had some interesting things to say about the distribution of the modern film.
“Increasingly now in the movie business, we talk about eyeballs. The movie business as we used to know it, doesn’t really exist anymore. What we want to see is the greatest amount of eyeballs for this film. Universal are the masters of getting films in front of an audience. I hope come October 2nd, when it’s available on all of the multiple different mediums, that lots of people watch it. It’s a good watch, and even if you aren’t into IndyCar, it’s a great watch.”
TSO Ladder asked team owner Chip Ganassi if he put together a team of racers on purpose and he told us: “I don’t know if it’s done on purpose, but maybe that is just the kind of people we are attracted to. Racers love hanging around other racers.”
During the Q&A after the film ended, the former driver was asked what made him agree to allow the film crew such comprehensive access to the team. Ganassi was forthright and to the point, saying that they were desperately looking for a sponsor to replace Target.
His one regret about the film? That new partner PNC Bank didn’t get any screen time.
“The next one,” was Ganassi’s simple answer to what his favorite Dixon memory was.
When you watch the film, it becomes apparent that Scott and Emma have a unique bond that only two world-class athletes can have together. Davies-Dixon is a former Welsh and British 800m champion. TSO just had one question for them.
You are both very competitive, but which of the two of you is more competitive?
We got a fun answer to start and then got an interesting look into what makes the relationship between the pair racers so special.
Emma: I know, we are. In different things though. I’m not competitive in life in general (sideways look from Scott). Where with Scott, everything is a competition. Jenga – Monopoly – cleaning the house.
Scott: Ummmm… I don’t know. I feel like it’s more Emma on that side. Away from the motor racing, I’m more chill.
Scott: If Emma loses Jenga, she’ll smash the whole set.
Emma: (Laughing) That’s not true!
Scott: Our kids are really competitive, which is pretty funny. Poppy and Tilly are probably the worst at some of those.
That was fun, but then it got a little more interesting.
Emma: When Scott has had days that I’ve felt that he hasn’t done his best. I know, obviously knowing him so well. I definitely let him know about it when he comes back to the motor-coach. I think that is because I always had three or for coaches with my career and I had a lot of influence that if I did let the team down, they’d let me know about it. Scott always does the best job. But, if he’s been staying up late at night, I let him know that’s not proper preparation and then he has a bad race day. That’s when I will…
Scott: Emma, with her career, she has an amazing understanding of competition on the performance of the body straight away. The tips and helping me and even mentally, she is such an inspirational person, but very sweet and understanding too. The combination has helped me immensely with the mind side of it. But, also the competition side too. If I have a bad day and I haven’t given my all, I don’t want to go home. I’m going to get an earful.
- Ed Carpenter, Conor Daly, Santino Ferrucci, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Jordan King, Spencer Pigot and Alexander Rossi were all on hand to support their fellow Verizon IndyCar Series driver.
- Susie Wheldon, widow of Scott’s former teammate Dan Wheldon was in attendance. It was great to see her. Wheldon owns Verve Boutique in St. Petersburg, Fla. and Susie and Dan’s sons are, not surprisingly, competitive karters.
Opinion – The addition of Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV brings much needed ownership diversity to the IndyCar paddock
By Steve Wittich
The addition of racing outsiders Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV can be nothing but a good thing for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Before the year 2000, Indy car teams came from a relatively equal mix of former participants and entrepreneurs with little to no ties with racing.
Let us use the 1989 CART PPG Indy Car World Series season as an example.
Former Formula 1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi won the title while driving for wildcat oil man Pat Patrick, who would win three Indianapolis 500s and two Indy car championships.
Rick Mears (2nd) and Danny Sullivan (7th) drove for former racer Roger Penske.
Carl Haas, a lifelong racing parts importer, teamed up with nine-time Oscar-nominated actor Paul Newman to field current IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti (3th) and his father, Mario Andretti (6th).
Italian Teo Fabi finished fourth and won a race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course driving for a factory Porsche team.
In fifth place was third generation driver Al Unser, Jr., who was behind the wheel of a Chevrolet powered Lola entered by New Mexico auto dealer Rick Galles.
Scott Pruett finished eighth while driving for Red Roof Inn owner Jim Trueman and his Colombus, Ohio based Truesports.
Right behind Pruett was former Truesports pilot Bob Rahal, who was driving a car sponsored by automotive aftermarket specialist KRACO and owned by that company founder Maurice Kraines.
In tenth place was Arie Luyendyk who was in the employ of former journeyman driver Dick Simon.
Quite a diverse mix of team owners and a far cry from the top ten in the final 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series standings, who are all employed by former drivers.
Take a look at the full-time teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018. Team owners A.J. Foyt, Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta, Michael Shank, Chip Ganassi, Dale Coyne, Ed Carpenter, Bob Rahal, Sam Schmidt, Roger Penske, Ricardo Juncos, and Trevor Carlin all have one thing in common. They were racers, or have been in racing their entire lives.
Harding Racing, who is led by team owner Mike Harding is the one outlier. Harding is the CEO of Indianapolis based asphalt, and concrete contractor Harding Group does not have a background in racing.
From Ted Field, the heir to the Marshall Field fortune and his Interscope Racing, to lumber and hardware mogul John Menard and his turbo V6 engines, to Treadway Racing founded by asbestos abatement specialist Fred Treadway, to fitness mogul Ron Hemelgarn and the 1996 Indianapolis 500, to energy billionaire Gerald Forsythe and his 28 Indy car wins. The team owners in the various iterations of Indy car racing came from diverse backgrounds.
Lifelong racers and team owners like AJ Foyt, Vince Granatelli, Dale Coyne and Tony Bettenhausen were regularly joined by outsiders like Tom Kelly (car dealerships), Aat Groenvelt (Veal), Bruce McCaw (cellular communication) and Dave Billes (Canadian Tire Stores) to make a successful patchwork of owners that hired drivers.
Harding and Steinbrenner IV should bring a fresh perspective to a paddock that has been chasing the same shrinking pool of sponsors for the past decade.
Earlier this spring Steinbrenner Racing hired Daniel Wale, a dedicated salesperson from outside of racing. More recently, Harding Racing added former Indianapolis Motor Speedway Productions President and COO, who has an extensive sales background, to their payroll. This duo combined with the contacts that Harding and Steinbrenner IV bring to the table has the chance to force more teams to up their sponsorship game.
TSO Feature by Bruce Martin – INDYCAR Trolley Tour of San Francisco with the four championship contenders
Cara Adams’ return to Portland International Raceway this weekend brings back a mountain’s worth of memories.
It was here, in 2007, where a one-off volunteering effort served as the starting point of a career that has ultimately led her to become the Chief Engineer, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports.
Adams had family connections that provided a window of opportunity for her to make the voyage to Portland.
She was a Firestone engineer of tire and vehicle dynamics at the time, but hadn’t ventured yet into the world of motorsports. As is often the case in racing, the timing was right for this venue to serve as her debut race on pit road.
“So this was a fun one. I’d already talked to my manager at the time, and told him a couple years before I was interested in racing and wanted to work in it at some stage,” Adams told TrackSide Online.
“I worked on tire and vehicle dynamics, and I really liked what I did there. But let’s be honest – I felt INDYCAR was more my calling!
“I knew the series was coming to Portland, and my sister had just moved out to Seattle. She took a job as a development engineer for Boeing. So, I decided to invite myself to her race.”
And so, the journey began from Ohio to Oregon. Of course the key for Adams was justifying the need to take vacation that oh-so-perfectly-happened to correspond with the Portland Champ Car race, and then figure out a way to pay for it.
Adams pushed ahead with the vacation request and paid her own way to get to Portland. Her engineering mindset immediately kicked in from a preparation standpoint to get acclimated.
“I talked to the manager I was currently working with to see if I could take vacation, and to take off Thursday, Friday and Monday to mimic the travel,” she explained. “So I did; I took vacation and paid my own travel.
“I said, ‘Hey I’ll be at track, I’m in Portland, and if you need anyone on pit lane, I’d be more than happy to help.’”
Adams proved a quick study. Firestone’s two senior leaders of its motorsports program from the 1990s into the early 2000s were Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri. At the time, Bridgestone branding appeared for Champ Car races while Firestone branding appeared at IRL IndyCar Series races.
“The team at Portland said, ‘We’ll put you to work.’ So I did and borrowed someone’s firesuit! I quickly had learned a lot from the Firestone team and yes, both Al and Joe were key in that. I don’t think they were used to someone who invited themselves!”
Adams worked with PKV Racing that weekend. PKV Racing grew out of the former PacWest Racing Group operation, and launched in 2003 as PK Racing before Jimmy Vasser joined the ownership group in 2004. The team was renamed as KV Racing Technology in 2008 once the merger of IndyCar and Champ Car occurred, and the team continued under several other names through the 2016 IndyCar season. The Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan names have returned to the grid in 2018 with Sebastien Bourdais’ Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan entry.
That PKV team that year featured a pair of rookie drivers in Neel Jani and Tristan Gommendy. It featured Tom Brown, now an engineer at Juncos Racing’s IndyCar program, as one of the team’s race engineers.
Adams worked with Craig Ross, a Firestone technician who helps train new people in the program.
“I wasn’t involved in the development of tires at the time but was here to learn and work,” Adams said. “It was very interesting to hear the driver comments, and I worked with Craig to talk to them. I listened to the engineers who designed (the tires). It was a more observational weekend.”
The practice and preparation of race weekend led to an exciting moment on Sunday. Adams’ first race on pit lane would witness Champ Car’s first standing start of that season with its new Panoz DP01 chassis. The anticipation built to ensure everyone got away safely.
“It was neat. I totally remember that! Everyone on pit lane was nervous. People stood on pit boxes to watch,” she recalled.
“From a tire perspective, there’s not much difference in that type of start. We tried it again a few years ago at Toronto. It’s not much different. You just have to make sure you get heat on your tires. There’s a lot of warming up beforehand.”
It was the first race in Champ Car’s ultimate final season. Firestone, was, of course, a constant that carried through the open-wheel merger into 2008. It’s been a stalwart of the championship for more than 25 years, and Adams is in her second year as the Chief Engineer after taking over the position from her predecessor, Dale Harrigle.
But at Portland, 2007? Adams knew she wanted to make her dream of working with race tires a reality. She just had no idea how far it would go.
“I always have a game plan!” she said. “I knew this is where and what I wanted to be. Of course back then I didn’t think, ‘Sure, one day I’ll be leading the program.’
“But I hoped I could be paid for this and do a good job for the company.”