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.