Sunday, August 20, 2017

Power Surge: Penske Takes Pocono

The final superspeedway race of the DW12 era may have cemented the car's legacy of putting on some tremendous oval racing. It was a thriller, boiling down to an intense finish and a winner that made one of the most impressive comebacks of the season to vault himself into the championship picture.

Coming into Sunday's ABC Supply 500 at Pocono, the main story was the razor thin points battle. Josef Newgarden had just a 7 point lead over teammate Helio Castroneves, with only 8 points separating him from Scott Dixon. Dixon was one of the favorites to win, as the Hondas have shown more speed than Chevy on the long ovals this season, and one was on the pole as Indy 500 Champ Takuma Sato took the P1 Award on Saturday.

So too a major story was the concern looming over crashes earlier in the weekend. 2012 Series Champion Ryan Hunter-Reay spent part of Saturday night in a hospital after a 138 G crash in qualifying. He was cleared to race but obviously reeling, speaking of pain in his hips before the race.

Free agent Tony Kanaan got off to an early lead, proving himself a factor yet again on ovals. He led the first 25 miles before being passed by Alexander Rossi.
Josef Newgarden was slicing through the pack like a hot knife through Velveeta when Esteban Gutierrez pancaked the wall on lap 22.

On the ensuing restart, Kanaan made a bonzai move around Rossi and Will Power for the lead. Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe emerged as factors as nobody could seem to gap another driver. This provided for excellent competition.

During the first green flag stops, Scott Dixon and crew began to empliment a risky strategy, pitting 2-3 laps before most of the other leaders. It seemed to pay off as he cycled out with the lead. Dixon would remain in or near the lead for most of the race.

A few laps later, at around the 1/3 mark, Will Power made an unscheduled stop to replace the front wing. It put him a lap down and looked to put him out of contention for the win.

As halfway approached, Ganassi's stronghold began to fade and the Andretti Autosport team began to shine. The injured Hunter-Reay took the lead on lap 100 with teammate Rossi in tow.

One of the most tense moments came on lap 102, with James Hinchcliffe, stuck in traffic after he overshot his stall on pit road 15 laps prior, slid high in turn one and was a breath away from disaster, correcting the car from turning sideways. Seconds later, Power made a save of his own. It just wasn't his day, or so many thought.

One lap into a restart on lap 124, disaster struck. James Hinchcliffe clipped JR Hildebrand and sent both blasting into the turn one wall. Both were okay, however. Hinch summed it up as "just a racing deal."
The safety of the DW12 just may be its legacy thanks to some of the crashes this weekend.

The ensuing restart would go on to be a captivating battle for the ages. Graham Rahal lurked around the top 5 for most of the day and finally got to the lead. Between lap 133 and 150, Rahal and TK traded the lead 16 times, breaking the Pocono 500 lead change record of 33 in the process.

A sequence of pit stops followed, and afterwards Will Power cycled out with a big lead, having 4 seconds over TK with 35 to go.

The final set of stops came with just over 20 to go, and the only team to make changes to the front wing was that of Will Power. Hoping to catch a caution for track position, Marco Andretti's team kept him on track. It did not pay off.

With 15 to go, Kanaan seemed as if he were on rails as he blistered through traffic to catch Power. But he suddenly dropped off in speed. The major players fizzled out and The Penske Games took on a whole new meaning.

Josef Newgarden had caught Power with 9 to go, working him over to make a pass to win his third race in a row. You couldn't fit a strip of bacon between the two cars as they snaked down the frontstretch.

Then, with 6 to go, Power lays down the law and shows why he's the defending race winner, breaking the draft and shutting down Josef's momentum before he even had a run coming out of turn two.
Newgarden held back and mounted a charge but was again denied with 2 to go. Then, coming to the checkered flag, Newgarden decided to go low before Power could cut him off. They ran each other all the way to the inside wall, kicking up dust in their pursuit for victory.

However, Power's move was enough to keep his teammate behind and win the ABC Supply 500. The 32nd win of his career tied him for 9th on the all time list with Paul Tracy and launched him into the championship picture. Despite being lapped for part of the race and almost spinning later on, he defied the odds, telling NBCSports "You can never give up in IndyCar because you never know what can happen."

Josef Newgarden told NBC he "can't be disappointed" with his day, and for good reason. He now holds an 18 point lead in the standings over Helio Castroneves.

But the points battle is still tight. Next week, the series returns to Gateway Raceway in St. Louis for the first time since 2003, where Helio Castroneves is a former winner, and as Will Power said, you never know what can happen.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The More Things Change...

It's summertime 2006. I'm unknowingly in my second season of following ChampCar/IRL for more than a few races per year. My nights are spent watching wrestling and late night sitcom reruns on the UPN station out of Atlanta (Chattanooga didn't have one), my days are spent with a mix of sleep and marathons of Burnout Revenge on the PlayStation 2, with my weekends spent at my friend Boone's house watching NASCAR Busch races and bootleg tapes of obscure cartoons. My first crush is a girl named Kaitlin and I just saw Texas and all states in between for the first time.
The soundtrack to that summer is the ever romantic "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)" by T-Pain. (ya know, of "Buy U A Drank" fame?) Oddly enough, I'll never be able to see The Alamo again without thinking about it.
Speed Channel is a constant on my television. Not knowing of too many trustworthy racing news sites (and fearing viruses from places like Geocities and Tripod), I get most of my news from Dave Despain and Bob Varsha.
Fun times to be a kid.

I had heard rumblings of NASCAR unveling the ominous sounding, grandiose "Car Of Tomorrow" at Daytona, but thanks to a vacation to Biloxi, Mississippi I missed out on seeing said unveling on Speed during the Firecracker 400 weekend. I had heard it had a wing and was excited, despite knowing it still seemed like something from that cartoon, NASCAR Racers.
It wasn't until 2 or so weeks after the fact that I got to see it. While being sold on the idea of embracing the future, I was by no means sold on the boxy, lumbered look of the COT. Compared to the sleek, curvy, slender cars of Nextel Cup at the time, this new thing looked like a dump truck.
Boone and I had a rather pensive discussion the weekend of the NASCAR Pennsylvania 500 that summer, as most kids do as they prepare to enter middle school. We discussed what was important to us at the time, what we wanted to grow up to be, the fear of fitting in at a new school, and the fear of growing apart. Then, as if it meant the world to me, with the kind of adorable, innocent, parylized fear only an 11 year old could have, I looked at him and asked "Dude, what if the new car sucks?"

Fast forward half my life so far later and a lot has changed. UPN's gone, Speed's gone, my PS2 hasn't been used for anything but an old F1 game in 3 years. (Spectator mode in the 989 games is how I practice commentary.)
Most importantly, The Split ended in '08 and I've been fully converted to IndyCar since 2005.
But our worst fears came true. Boone and I grew apart and the Car Of Tomorrow can be summed up as polarizing at best.

I find myself now in a similar but different position. Instead of fearing middle school, I turn 23 in 2 months and it scares the hell out of me. Mom only lived to be 42, after all, so health is becoming a concern. Beyond that, time's a tickin' on pouring the foundation for my future. Who knows where this racing stuff will take me? But those fears are just as deep as my fear of what would go on to be the best years of my childhood. The fear of fitting into the sport of auto racing feels just like my fear of fitting in with the football players a decade ago.

Similar too is the world of IndyCar. The engineering marvel that is the 2018 car was unveiled earlier in the summer, and it's one sexy beast. It will be the second new car of the Reconstruction Era, and it couldn't be a more exciting time to give the fans something new.
But on many levels, the fear I had over the COT in NASCAR is back.
Funny, it's Pocono weekend for IndyCar and my love for 2000s hip hop mixed with insomnia brought me back to T-Pain at around 3AM.
It has me thinking, fearing whether or not this new car will be as good as the DW12. As a fan, that fear exists because it's been a great car. All 6 Indy 500s with the DW12, they've been bangers, as the kids say. And my already strong appreciation for road racing skyrocketed in 2012. Simply put, the racing, especialy on ovals, has been tremendous. Professionally, my life has become intertwined with this sport. With a little luck, my life will revolve around this sport soon. I want nothing more than for IndyCar to regrow and become known by race fans as the place "Where the big boys play," to steal a slogan from my old line of work. It would be a crime and a major setback if the 2018 car didn't meet expectations. I'd hate to see our sport hindered by technology.
But there is hope and I am more than confident that things will only get even better. The Mid-Ohio test gave me added optimism. IndyCar isn't the thrilling series that it is by luck, after all. And at the very least, the cars ooze beauty inside and out. However, we will see if the anxiety is quelled when the season begins next spring.

And just like that summer night where Boone and I stayed up talking all those yesterdays ago, dawn brings with it the realization that things will be okay. Through pieces like this I can hopefully find a job in the business, and worst case scenario, the 2018 car will be an ever changing work in progress, with engineers striving to make it cutting edge, competitive, and captivating. Even if it isn't perfect right away, it can be improved.

And just like in 2006, my plan for Sunday is to sit back and soak in 500 miles of racing at Pocono, albeit with a different form of race car. I'll have in mind my childhood optimism, to enjoy the races we have left with such wonderful racing machines. A little older, I'll have a beer in hand, taking notes for a write up.

So I guess, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that's alright. We'll all be here to roll with the changes.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Second Helping: My Time At The Honda Indy 200

            2017 Has been quite the year for me to say the least. If you had told me a year ago that people like Robin Miller would even know my name, let alone offer up advice on how to “make it” in racing media on a frequent basis, I'd have thought you were crazy. But, this past April, magic happened. Well, magic for me anyway.

During my first experience, on Friday at Barber, I struck up conversation with Mr. Miller on pit road...during a practice session being taped for NBC Sports. I'm not exactly certain it was the most professional time and place, him being on the clock and all, but when your journalism hero is standing right beside you, it's hard not to be tenacious and speak up. We talked at length in the media center, exchanged business cards, and went about our assignments.

He told me to email him and send him a story that I could shop around by the following Wednesday. I did, of course. He passed it around, it got overwhelming approval, but as the luster of the weekend faded, I returned to my bargain bin Bruce Wayne life of stand up comedy and co-hosting Sports Viewpoints with Bill Bolen at TV39.
When a TV station is in a single wide trailer (And was once a UPN affiliate), you know you're working on borrowed time. Even in April, it was entirely possible the station would close before my piece on Barber even aired.
By late spring, I had put in place plans to move, and it just so happens Chattanooga's Tower of Low Power was to cease operations on July 1st with the final Sports Viewpoints airing the night before. We went out with a bang, sipping champagne on the air and reminiscing about shows long past.
Just days later I found myself out of a job, living with my brother and his wife in Dayton, Ohio.

So what do you do when your TV show gets canceled? I reached out to another pal, Pat Caporali, IndyCar's senior manager of media relations. We met at Barber and have stayed in touch. She's turned out to be one of the most helpful people I could ask for. I told her the position I was in, and she invited me to work as media at Mid-Ohio. Great! Except now with no name but my own to rely on, what was I supposed to do?
I did all I know to do, and that's book a hotel, put on my road trip playlist (The Strokes, Tom Petty, and Pearl Jam mostly), jump in the Ford Fiesta and party on over to Lexington.

My first impression of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course reminded me of home. It had a more rustic, farm style look than I expected. Honestly, when driving in it looked like the kind of field where Billy Corgan would have wanted a Smashing Pumpkins video shot in the 90s. Maybe I was spoiled by how pristine Barber is. It took me by surprise, but the down home charm hooked me in and made me fall in love. This was, after all, only my second trip to a road course as media, so I was very much star-crossed.
Mid-Ohio is popular among fans and personnel alike for its tremendous campsites. The sea of tents and RVs in the lot is impressive, and it's no surprise campsites are in such high demand given the views from every inch of the course. This place, although showing its age, is still just as beautiful as I imagine it was when the first generation of Rahal and Andretti were going toe to toe there.
The media center is in The Treehouse, the big tower behind pit road, and upon entering I quickly felt more like I was at summer camp than a race. This was going to be a fun weekend.

I got there just about as early as possible on Saturday morning. The media center opens at 7AM and I was checking in for the weekend at 7:15. With no cars on track, I ran to the paddock and shot some beautiful breakfast time B-Roll (I just love alliterations). Pat came to greet me shortly after 9 and I was off to the races, pun very much intended. She reintroduced me to her coworkers and to some new people with whom I'm eager to work at some point, but the coolest thing she showed me was the view of the paddock. It's amazing, and it's not just for media, it's for fans too. You can walk up a short set of steps and look down at your team of choice working on their car. It's a full overhead view, one from which you can see everything. It's a one of a kind experience exclusive to Mid-Ohio, and one that any gearhead will appreciate.

One of the big things I noticed throughout the weekend was just how interactive IndyCar is. It reinforced a lot of what I learned at Barber. If a driver is within a fan's line of sight, they're more than happy to take a photo or sign an autograph. Even the legends of the sport like Mario Andretti take time to speak with fans. I saw two younger women gushing over getting to meet the once ruler of the racing world as if they were teens meeting the Backstreet Boys in 1999. Unlike other forms of racing where drivers are often behind a fence and hard to talk to, IndyCar's stars are friendly and more than willing to make a fan's day. Nowhere else was this more proven than when I assisted in Graham Rahal's judging of the annual campground decorating contest. Originally just for contestants, Graham hauled  3 boxes of t-shirts to give away. Rahal is the hometown hero, the fan favorite, and word got around quickly that he was riding around the campground. He gave a shirt to each and every fan who asked for one, passing them out like Halloween candy. He even threw some at unsuspecting campers. What was supposed to take an hour turned into three as he took selfies, signed autographs...oh yeah, and judged the contest. It turned out to be a lot of fun.

Meanwhile I had shot 4 hours of footage throughout the day, and qualifying was next up. Pat told me I could shoot the P1 Award celebration alongside the “real” production crew and photographers. I was nervous yet excited. Imagine being a teenager getting asked out by the prom king. It's tense, but the kind of tension you live for. This was, after all, my first chance to mix it up with any and everyone who shoots this sport and gets paid for it. And if I ever want to rock The Peacock on my polo shirts, I'd darn well better get in there and mix it up like my Mom's chili. And I'd say it went well, nosing my way into the pit and getting within a brush stroke of PoleWinner Will Power's silver and red Chevy, being front and center for his reception of his 49th P1 Award trophy. Not bad for my first time being thrown in with the sharks.

After qualifying, exhausted doesn't even begin to describe how I felt. 36 Hours with no sleep, combined with the massive adrenaline dump meant I was falling asleep in my dinner at Denny's. I felt like Elvis that time he passed out in soup, except the burns on my face were from the sun. To decompress, I spent an hour in the hotel pool and decided to not even think about the race day ahead. I plugged my camera batteries in to charge, put on some Lou Reed, and fell asleep on the pull out couch.

I awoke a few hours later to race day, and if those two words don't excite you, nothing will. The tension in the press room, the drama on track, it's the kind of thing that gets your blood pumping. I shot footage on the grid for the first time, and I noticed a strange juxtaposition between the innocent jubilation of the fans and the brutally intense focus of drivers and teams. Peeking in on a Team Penske prerace pep talk with The Captain himself hammered home the point that this was serious business, even if just yards away fans were going wild over the mere sight of team owner (and personal hero) David Letterman.

When the grid was cleared to begin the race, I was kicked out of pit road. Security was confused as to which pass meant which, the only complaint I have about the whole weekend. When that was resolved, I watched part of the race from behind the pitbox of Graham Rahal. He was running near the front and was a short jog from the eventual winner's pitbox. Everything was going great until about halfway in when I went to scratch my ear and it felt like it had exploded. The sound was even more savage. I ran to the medical center behind pit road where, after a series of questions that put blood banks to shame, I was told I had severe sunburn and that what had exploded was a blister. I was given some burn cream and was back in the game.

The drivers were gearing up for the only restart of the day, and realizing this might be a repeat of Barber, I ran down to the pitbox of Josef Newgarden. Watching the finish of a race from behind the pitbox of the winner is emotionally intimidating. The nailbiting, the anxiety that this could be the moment all hell breaks loose and the race is lost-surely, I thought, these guys have been here before, right? I mean, it's Penske. I realized that doesn't matter, winning  is a dream come true every time, and losing feels like a dagger in the heart. Walking that line until the fat lady sings is excruciating.

Newgarden won, and for the second time this year I got to run to victory lane. It's pretty funny, if you watch the broadcast, you can see a green dot rushing to get as good a shot, to get as close to the car as possible. That's me. I was in the best position, able to sit on the left sidepod if I so chose. The next thing I know, I'm next to Roger Penske, across from Will Power, Josef gets out of the car and I get the best shot of my career- or so I thought. My battery went dead and the file became corrupted mid-shot. I was furious, but I decided to make up for it at the podium celebration. Third time I had to wade through a sea of journalists and photographers, and I think I'm getting the hang of this. Even though I busted my best pair of dress pants crawling under someone, bah gawd I was once again at the front, getting a clear shot of the confetti cannons showering the top three with paper stars. I felt like I had done myself proud by hanging tough with the big dogs, something I continued to do in the press conference. Those are funny, because new journalists seem to have to ask tough, out of the box questions to get noticed and earned respect. I asked Josef about whether he was nervous or not about St. Louis being the only track at which he hasn't raced, and how the pressure of being the points leader could affect that. I proved, at least to myself anyway, that I actually knew what I was doing and could thrive in this environment if given a week to week chance.

When the champagne evaporated and the sun began to set, I shot my wrap arounds and went back to the Treehouse to say thanks to Pat, Mike Kitchel, and everyone who made the weekend possible. This series is filled with good people and I'm happy to get to join them when possible. It was likely my last race day experience of the season, and as my brother pulled away in the Fiesta, I began to think about the year I've had. A once dear friend once summed me up as pensive, and boy was I as the gorgeous Columbus skyline came into view. This year, I rode the rails of local TV until the train rolled off the tracks, ventured into a new world in standup comedy, and most importantly got to cover the IndyCar Series for two races, all things a ten year old me would have squealed over. It was through perseverance and the help of some kind strangers turned friends and colleagues that I was able to do any of it.
It's just over 8 months until Barber next season, if the 2018 schedule mirrors this year's. I have no idea what I'll be doing or who I'll be working for, but I'd like to imagine I'll be enjoying my third media experience, or maybe fourth, fifth, etc. by that point.
I've learned a lot from these two races, the most important being that tenacity is key in motorsport, no matter if you wear a firesuit or a suit and tie. I feel like that will take me farther than anything. These opportunities have been nothing short of amazing for a kid raised in stock car country, and you can bet I can't wait until opportunity comes knocking again.

Link to my piece on the race:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sorry Folks!

Hi, everyone! Sorry for the lack of updates since the Indy 500. A lot of things have been going on. I've moved to Ohio and have lots of fun things to share with you all, starting with my thoughts on my second experience as media at an IndyCar Series race!

I hope you look forward to reading them!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Serious Freedom: Thoughts On The Carb Day Classic

What if I told you one of the most exciting races in all of motorsport was held while most Americans are obliviously plugging away at work on a Friday afternoon?
Pulse pounding side by side racing, hair raising crashes, the 2 closest finishes in the history of Indy; These all describe what it's like to enjoy your lunch break watching the Freedom 100 over the years.
And it's about time you watched it too.

Entering only its fifteenth incarnation this week, the Freedom 100 may not have the rich heritage that it's parental race has, but it has begun to carve its own special place in the sport, quickly solidifying itself as a must-watch. The list of then-future stars who have raced the Freedom 100 is enormous: Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter, JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Pippa Mann, Carlos Munoz, and current rookie sensation Ed Jones. Even stars from other forms of racing, like Sean Rayhall, German Quiroga, and Bryan Clauson have raced in the 100. And the list of names still climbing the ladder, Kyle Kaiser, Zach Veach, Santiago Urritia, is long and rich with potential.
The Freedom 100 is "all the excitement of the 500" in just 40 laps, I was told by Indy Lights Series owner Dan Anderson.
Simply put, the race is a thriller year after year and continues to introduce race fans to a cavalcade of future stars.

I saw my first Freedom 100 on TV in 2008. School always ended for the summer on Carb Day, and most years, my Mom would let me skip that last day and instead enjoy an extra day of summer. I was thrilled to see my first Freedom 100. While you could have had a sack race down pit road at Indy between drivers and I'd have been just as excited, this was a chance to start my favorite weekend of the year off right. Live racing on television on a Friday morning? 13 Year old me had no idea such a thing was possible! But boy, was it fun. My Mom baked brownies and I settled in for one of the most exciting experiences of my late childhood.
Little did I know, however, that with Dillon Battistini's victory, a tradition had been born.

Year after year, Mom and I would bake brownies and watch the race. Up the ranks came Hildebrand, Kimball, Newgarden, Hinchcliffe, Munoz and more, and yet for the next several years the only things that changed were my Chia-Pet like afro and the brand of eggs Mom used in the brownies.
Things changed a little in 2013. I was deep into the pro wrestling business and had been in a massive car wreck the day before. I had a show scheduled just a few hours after the race, and I decided to save my energy and watch the race from bed, alone. Despite being dazed and hazed from pain meds due to the wreck, I'll never forget the excitement (and pain) that came from the on-your-feet, screaming at the TV thriller of a finish, Peter Dempsey taking the leaders four wide at the stripe for the then-closest finish in IMS history, and still my personal favorite.
2014 Brought with it another photo finish, the new tradition of calling up by buddy Eric out in Oakland to watch over Skype, and continued the short lived tradition of the Freedom kicking off a weekend of wrestling shows and auto races. (I had my head shaven after a match in 2014.)

It's 2017 now.  My Mother passed away in 2016, my time in the wrestling business is likely over for good, and I have no idea how to make brownies. And yet, no matter the traditions surrounding the race and how they come and go, the Freedom 100 has become a big part of the weekend for both myself and fans worldwide. It's a fun chance to take an hour or two to drop what you're doing, maybe go to a sports bar with some co-workers or go home to the family and enjoy a race seldom seen while the rest of the world takes the day too seriously. Oh, and you get to enjoy a five star show.
The home to last lap passes, photo finishes, sidepod to sidepod, wheel to wheel contact, and stars of the future sure beats any other way to spend a lunch break.
Friday, come noon EST, I know where I'll be; I'll be dialing up Oakland with NBCSN on my TV, ready for my tenth straight year of enjoying one of my favorite races of the season. 
Maybe this time, I'll learn how to make brownies.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hey Now, You're An All Star: Can ANOTHER New Format Make It Fun Again?

I  know what you're thinking: Whoa, Lucas is talking about stock cars? Well, of course! Much like the girl who stood me up at junior prom, NASCAR will always be my first love, even if I only check in now and again to see how it's doing on social media these days. (Except stock car racing never tried to sell me AVON over Facebook.)
But the Month of May brings a dash of excitement from Indy down below the Mason-Dixon line to the gorgeous Queen City of The Carolinas as NASCAR hosts their All Star Race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for some under the lights fun after the drama of Pole Day for The 500.

I have always been a proponent for the All Star Race. I think it's a great opportunity for everyone in the sport, and the fans, to let their hair down and party. The drivers get to parade around spiffy paint jobs and race for a million smackers, and the fans get a short, sweet, and exciting show. People say the race is useless, unimportant, too gimmicky (although isn't that the point to this race?), a glorified practice session for the World 600.
I'll defend the All Star Race against any argument, except one: We can all agree that for a very, VERY long time, the race...well, it's not been very good. Really, it hasn't. The only "Moment" from the last decade that stands out in my immediate memory was the Busch Brothers Divebomb Fiesta, and that was a full decade ago. Once one of the most fun nights on the schedule, NASCAR's big night has been plagued by lackluster racing, confusing, ever-changing formats, bad attendance, and toxic apathy. A lot of fans don't care to watch the All Star, or even care about it at all, largely for reasons listed above. Nobody can argue this event needs a shot in the arm, and this year, if NASCAR does just one thing right, we could be in for, ahem, One Hot Night.
Let's take another trip back to the 90s, shall we?

It's 1991, the mullet is a fashion staple, Roseanne Barr is inescapable, and thanks to grunge, rock and roll is said to be dying. Dying, too is The Winston; the brainchild of both NASCAR and the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. The concept at first was simple. Yeah, you had the Busch Clash, the showdown of pole award winners from the previous year, but those were NASCAR's fastest drivers. This race was said to showcase the all around best, the fan favorites, the winners, 70 balls to the wall laps to determine who gets $200,000 and a year's bragging rights. And in the early years, it worked. Aside from the ill fated idea to rotate the venue year to year, the race was a success. The Pass In The Grass in '87 and the brawl between Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip's crews in '89 proved that, especially for an exhibition race, The Winston was one of racing's hot spots for drama. But by 1991, the aura and novelty had worn off, television rights bounced around, and the 1991 Winston (Won by Davey Allison) itself was a ho-hum affair with a confusingly, eternally long 200 mile Winston Open (Won by Michael Waltrip) as the prelude.
Despite its largest attendance that year (according to Ken Squire on the broadcast), The Winston was considered dead. NASCAR and RJ Reynolds considered scrapping the race entirely, until Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler decided to perform CPR on the event, calling Musco to help make the Queen City shine.
The result was the instant classic (in a month filled with classic races worldwide) dubbed "One Hot Night." The finish alone lived up to the hype, and The Winston was spared execution thanks to a half lap of chaos and a shower of sparks. The following years produced surprises in the form of a Waltrip winning in 1996, folklore in the form of a T-Rex, soggy classics, and hidden gems.
The Winston-branded era of The All Star ended in 2003, with an elimination concept called "Survival Of The Fastest," and for the few years it was implemented, it was fun.
But in 2004, Sprint/Nextel's sponsorship of the event made it feel more like an infomercial for cell phones than an auto race, and soon after the fun factor started to fade. Within a decade, the formats were more convoluted than playing Monopoly with someone whose made up rules counter yours, and the racing was like dinner at Chili's; mediocre at best. And while not exactly on the chopping block like in '91, a new series sponsor in Monster brings a renewed sense of hope that the All Star Race may have a shot at pumping out special moments again.

And why not? New, too, is the format, yet again. However, it plays upon both "One Hot Night" and "Survival Of The Fastest" with modern twists. Clocking in at 70 laps, just like in '92, involving eliminations like the early '00s, and the final 10 laps consisting of the 10 drivers with the best average position through the rest of the night sets the table for fans to dine on plenty of drama. Add to it, for the first time in race history the option of multiple tire compounds to be used, there's plenty of new and old to crow about.

Could we see One Hot Night 2: Electric Boogaloo? It's possible, but not probable. Although this new format seems a step in the right direction. One thing is certain, though. For the first time since I was in high school, I'm making damn sure to watch the All Star Race, hoping to see some excitement. And I think you should too.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Let The Games Begin

When I was 13, my friends in the Westside Middle Pettyjohn Mafia found ourselves playing John Williams' "The Olympic Spirit" in band class as a way to celebrate the countdown to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Bejing. Talented as I was (not), hammering away on the xylophone, I wished every day we were instead playing the theme from "The Delta Force."
It was, after all, the Month of May, and the anticipation for The Indy 500 had hooked each and every one of my friends harder than "Low" by Flo Rida. Despite the enthusiasm, our plea to play the Alan Sylvestri classic at our spring carnival fell on deaf ears.
Now, almost a decade later, the Mafia grew apart and the affectionately rapped-about "Apple Bottom Jeans" wound up at Goodwills across America.
But what hasn't changed is that boyish sense of wonder, that Olympian feeling that comes as with the north Georgian thundershowers every spring..

Alas, we have arrived. It is the eve of the IndyCar Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the kickoff to the two week long party that's all in celebration of the Indianapolis 500. Race fans worldwide are popping the champagne, ready to follow their favorite drivers and teams towards a hopeful victory in The 500.
Much like The Olympics, athletes from around the world are set to compete in 16 days of unique challenges. Not just The 500, mind you, but daily practice, Pole Day, final practice on Carb Day,  the pit stop competition, and the kickoff, the GP of Indianapolis.
Now in its fourth season, the GP has proven to be one of the favorite stops on the IndyCar schedule for fans and drivers, and it adds yet another thrilling event to an action packed 2 weeks of activity.
It's a race like no other, with all the luster and prestige that even a 2 man sack race down pit road at IMS would receive combined with a flat, yet blazing fast course all but owned by Simon Pagenaud. It's a different animal, a blend of suspense all its own, and yet it's every bit as fun as the 500.

So, no matter your favorite event, country, team, or driver, let us all gather 'round and celebrate "Our" version of Christmastime, the start of another year's events at Indy.

Let the games begin!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

If Heaven Ain't A Lot Like Indy...

This is a piece I wrote at the request of someone. With the festivities starting at IMS this week, I figured my perspective on being an open wheel fan in NASCAR country and my first experience working as media at Barber
would be a good read. Enjoy.

The city name Dalton, GA doesn't ring too many bells, and really why should it? We're known as the “Carpet Capital Of The World,” meaning if you have carpet at home, it was made here. There's not much that's exciting in this town, but being deep in the heart of stock car country, things can get interesting. Across from the bargain supermarket is the bike shop owned by Tammy Jo Kirk, the former motorcycle and NASCAR Truck racer, and one town over in Chatsworth, Jody Ridley's family still participates in weekly events at North Georgia Speedway. Not to mention, we're a short drive away from historic Dawsonville, birthplace of a who's who of racing legends. Indeed, it is a slice of racing heaven.....unless you're an IndyCar fan.

Dixie ain't the place for people like me, the kind of people who can tell you as much about Bobby Labonte as Bobby Rahal, Dale Earnhardt as Dale Coyne, or Jeff Gordon as Jeff Andretti. I fit in well enough, but conversations are tough when you're talking to someone who can pronounce Kulwicki, Keselowski, or even Maggiacomo but not Kanaan, Castroneves, or even Salazar. While I do enjoy a good fender bangin' showdown at Martinsville, and while I always enjoy supporting the local late model racers, I often find myself wishing I was Back Home Again In Indiana rather than having Georgia On My Mind. (No offense to Ray Charles.)

But when I was 15, a bit of the yankee life headed my way. The IRL had left Nashville after 2008, but the IndyCars returned to the south in a big way, announcing the Indy Grand Prix Of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. Finally, just two hours away my favorite racing series would get to show everyone else what I had always been raving about. Who would have thought the pulse pounding symphony of chaos that is the IndyCar Series would come to life just a stone's throw from the home of stock car racing's Alabama Gang? And in the 7 years since, something must have worked, as over 80,000 fans from 41 states and six countries attended this year's event.

Through my years attending as a fan, I've seen the event grow from just another stop on the schedule to a destination for spectators and competitors alike. But this year, I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the fence and experience my favorite sport in pure, raw, unfiltered fashion. Working freelance with a television station out of Chattanooga, TN whose building is akin to the size of a 25 cent pack of Juicy Fruit, I signed up for a media credential with no expectation of being approved. My dream is to follow in the footsteps of a Paul Page or a Dave Despain, but would little old me really get the chance to chase it? Then, 8 days before the event, I received confirmation that I had been granted media access. Great! But what now?
Having only 8 days to make something from nothing, I scrambled into action, emailing and Tweeting to anyone I could find that could help, and thanks to some kind people, I had interviews lined up with Dale Coyne, Graham Rahal, and Mikhail Aleshin. So I packed up my '91 Crown Vic and motored down I59 for my first true IndyCar experience. Sure, I've been to a plethora of NASCAR races, an Indy 500 and 3 Grands Prix at Barber, but nothing prepared me for my first experience as media.
Getting to the track at dawn, hauling around 40 pounds of equipment, and setting things up as a one man band was tough, even shooting B-roll alone was mentally exhausting. What made it worth it, however, was seeing up close the dedication, the focus, the intensity of crews preparing cars for the race. Schmidt Peterson's PR representative Veronica Knowlton allowed me to shoot footage of pit practice, and I'll tell ya what, pit stops from 3 feet away will take your breath away. The views of the course that I got to sink in were incredible, even if I was wearing a suit in near 90 degree temperatures. Running around the paddock, I felt like a turkey in the rain, I was so confused. Setting up interviews on the fly and trying to get just the right shot for my television piece was hard enough, and then suddenly I realized I left my media pass in Mikhail Aleshin's transporter! (Imagine that, though. A Russian and a southern boy got along very well for the interview.)
But how fitting it was that with a handful of laps to go, another southerner took the lead and never let go?

I stood behind the pitbox of Josef Newgarden's team for the end of the race , and before I knew it, everyone was hugging and high fiving, and I ended up invited to victory lane. While I wasn't quite sure if I belonged, I remembered the advice of a longtime friend from my days in pro wrestling who told me “Act like you belong and nobody will question it.” That rang true as I wound up part of the party all the way until the post race press conference. Trust me when I say the excitement was so intoxicating, it was hard to stay professional.

The GP of Alabama is tremendous in that it helps expose southern race fans to a form of auto racing they only otherwise hear about every May. My hope through my media work was to convey my personal excitement for a sport I love so dearly, so that maybe we'll see more races in the south's most beautiful cities, like a Chattanooga street race perhaps? (Hey, one can dream, right?)

I've been to The Daytona 500, I've been to Petit LeMans, Bristol at night, Darlington when the Southern 500 came home, you name it. But the greatest experience of both my professional and personal lives came at the 2017 Grand Prix of Alabama. To put a twist on the old country classic, “If Heaven ain't a lot like Indy, I don't wanna go..”

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Alonso: The Biggest Thing Since Crystal Pepsi?

Quick. Name your favorite ABBA song. No, I'm serious. Do it. I don't care if you love or hate Swedish disco. I'll bet you five bucks your favorite ABBA song is the one the entire racing, if not sports, world finds itself singing right now, the song I ruled my third place crown to at my 8th grade sweetheart dance; ya know, "Fernando?"
Unless you've lived under a rock for the last month, you know that two-time Formula One World Champ Fernando Alonso is skipping the GP in Monaco to run his first Indy 500, and if the audience that logged on (Over two million viewers, according to to witness his ROP test at IMS yesterday is any indication, Fernando could be the biggest and best thing to hit The Speedway since my Dad was rocking Baby Got Back in his Geo Metro in '93.
To understand, one has to remember late 1992, and the utter phenomenon that race fans experienced when Nigel Mansell, the reigning Formula One World Champion decided to jump the pond and try his hand at CART. Sure, we had Mario and AJ winning everything under the sun and returning to run IndyCars at the drop of a hat, your John Andrettis and Robby Gordons were racing whatever caught their eye (or Ford's in Robby's case), and Michael Andretti had gone to F1, but this was Nigel Freaking Mansell: The biggest star in the motorsports world, with a 'stache second only to Dale Earnhardt and a worldwide following that'd have made stick and ball stars like Deion Sanders blush. He was coming to CART, and oh by the way, would serve as teammate to Mario Andretti, driving for Newman/Haas. If that's not a Tag Team that'll make you say "Whoomp, There It Is," I don't know what is.
Coming off a tremendous stretch of races at the Indy 500, capped with an instant classic involving Little Al going over Scott Goodyear the previous year, the stage was set for the 1993 running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing to be a barn burner, in large part due to the allure of the immensely popular World Champ trying his hand at the world's most important race. (A race, mind you, that was once part of  a World Championship schedule.) It was the pinnacle of motorsport, and here was motorsport's pinnacle driver, ready to take on the task. It was an era in which The 500 had no problem selling out year after year, and yet Mansell-Mania was runnin' wild, turning the race from a must-see American motorsports event to a must-see world sporting event, with a 9.3 ratings share on ABC in the US. His third place effort helped him sail to the 1993 CART/IndyCar Championship, but within a few years, the glory and prestige of the era would fade alongside mullets and ratings for The Chevy Chase Show.
The split in '96 so badly damaged the sport on both sides and robbed Indy of star power to the point the race was dubbed the IRL 500, and NASCAR's 600 miler in North Carolina would win the weekend in TV ratings for almost 20 years. And while that's not to take away from the Laziers, Hornishes, or Kenny Bracks of the IRL era, and while we had Montoya in 2000, Helio's 2 in a row, Dario's general existence, and Danica-Mania in 2005 to generate buzz, few can argue that the glory of The 500 was filtered through rose colored glasses as opposed to reality for a while. The race just lacked that spark. Not even NASCAR stars trying "The Double" could have that Mansell-Mania impact.
But what's old is new again, the kids say the 90s are back, and as a matter of fact I'm sipping on the long discontinued 1993 carbonated classic Crystal Pepsi, which was brought back last summer. And  I'll be the first to tell ya, it's feeling like it's second verse, same as the first as we pop the cork on the 30 day party known as the Month of May.
No, Fernando Alonso isn't the reigning Champ, and sure, he's been to Indy before on the old F1 course, but Fernando's decision to run the Indy 500 has generated a more organic frenzy than anything IndyCar has seen since Masnell-Mania almost a quarter century ago. Let's not forget, too, the similar circumstances. Thanks in most years to the DW12, every single Indianapolis 500 of the decade so far has been a classic in its own right; Wheldon over Hildebrand in 2011, Sato vs. Franchitti in '12, 68 lead changes and TK finally winning in '13, Hunter Reay denying Helio in '14, Montoya's comeback in '15, and the shocker with Rossi last year have all helped bring The 500 back to former glory. No longer are the classic moments all on grainy film or dusty videotape, but rather they're so fresh in fans' minds they're almost tangible. Ticket sales for the event are up, anticipation is through the roof, and tangible, too, is the excitement for one of  the racing world's pinnacle drivers again taking on the world's pinnacle race, with many F1 fans or general sports fans taking their first look at an Indy 500, and hopefully liking what they see. Adding fuel to the excitement is the memory of last year, when another F1 driver, racing for the same team as Alonso, shocked the world and won The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. If all goes well, this could usher in a lucrative new era for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and an exciting era for the fans.
But for now, the eyes of the world are watching, just like in '93.