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!