Harvest GP: Newgarden Pulls Closer

After winning the first race of the Gateway doubleheader weekend on August 29, Scott Dixon held a commanding 117-point lead (386-269) over Josef Newgarden in the NTT IndyCar Series championship standings.

Five races later, a new storyline has emerged, as Newgarden used a win and a fourth-place finish at the Harvest GP doubleheader held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to cut Dixon’s lead to 32-points as the series moves to the season finale at St. Pete in three week’s time.

Dixon finished P9 and P8, respectively, in the two races over the weekend.

“Still a lot of hard work to do there,” Dixon told NBC after Saturday’s race (as reported by Motorsport.com) in which he struggled to eighth. “As always, the NTT IndyCar Series comes down to the final race, even without double points, and the lead that we had – over 100 points at one stage.

“It’s nice to be on the leading side of the points at this stage. It’s still a big margin, so he has to get most laps led, all the four bonus points and we have to finish ninth. But they have been pretty good in St Pete in previous years. You know, we’re definitely going to have our work cut out.”

Despite never winning at St. Pete, Dixon does have the upper hand. Newgarden can do everything right on Oct. 25, and if Dixon finishes better than P9, he wins his sixth championship.

Then again, if you believe in momentum, Newgarden obviously has it. While Dixon’s results since his last win haven’t been awful — just a representation of the massively high standards we have set for him — his best finish is still P5 (Gateway 2) while Newgarden has won twice and only finished out of the Top 5 once.

Still, it’s going to be an exciting weekend, because both drivers bring strengths into the weekend, and both are notoriously great closers. Newgarden also comes in as the defending champ, having won on the streets of St. Pete in March, 2019.

Power, Rossi Closing Strong

Will Power and Alexander Rossi are two drivers who have had seasons they’d love to forget, but both have made a late-season charge.

Power, who notched his first win of the year at Mid-Ohio 2, won the 61st pole of his career on Saturday and led wire-to-wire to win for the fourth time on the IMS road course and the 39th time in his career, which moves him into a tie with Al Unser for fifth on the all-time list.

Power, who leads the series with four poles this year, has moved himself into fourth in the season standings, and is just 13 points behind Colton Herta in third. Expect more of the same at St. Pete, where Power has two wins and has won the pole four of the last five years.

Rossi is still searching for his first win of the year, but is now on a run of four straight podium finishes, including P2 and P3 over the weekend. He’s looking to take the next couple of steps up the podium at St. Pete in hopes of avoiding the first winless season in his fifth year in IndyCar.

Rookie of the Year

While there is still the championship to be settled at St. Pete, the Rookie of the Year race is over as Rinus Veekay has pulled out to a 54-point lead on Alex Palou.

Technically, Veekay has to start the race at St. Pete, but he becomes the second Dutchman to win the honor, following in the footsteps of his mentor Arie Luyendyk, who won the award in 1985.

Veekay had a great start to the weekend at the Harvest GP, winning the first pole of the year and leading 15 laps before coming home third to also pick up his first podium. It’s certainly been an up-and-down season for the 20-year-old, but he’s held his own and sits 14th in the standings but only 20 points behind 10th-place Felix Rosenqvist.

The Podcast

Have you checked out The Rumble Strip podcast this week? Eric Hall and I talk about some silly season action and make our Harvest GP picks. You can check it out here, as well as subscribe and listen on iTunes and iHeart Radio.

Photo credit: Walt Kuhn/IndyCar Media

3 Things: Road America Race 1

Three races into the season and we already are seeing a trend: Scott Dixon ending up in the winner’s circle. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver did it again Saturday when he took the lead late in the race and won for the third time this season.

Race 2 goes off late Sunday morning, but here are three of my Saturday storylines:

Dixon, Rinse, Repeat: If you factor in his win at the Rolex 24 back in January, Dixon is now 4-for-4 on the season. While this one wasn’t of the usual dominant variety, Dixon is quickly pulling away from the rest of the IndyCar field, as his 155 points puts him 62 points ahead of Simon Pagenaud and 67 up on Colton Herta. It also puts him just one win away from joining A.J. Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52) as the only IndyCar drivers with 50 career wins. I predicted on this week’s The Rumble Strip podcast that Dixon was going to win one of the races this weekend, but does he continue his sweeping ways?

Nice to meet you, Alex Palou: It’s been an eventful year for the Dale Coyne Racing rookie. When COVID-19 broke out, he spent several weeks sheltered in place at home in Spain, and as the Texas weekend was getting closer, he had to wait to get clearance to leave Europe, then quarantine at his U.S.-based home in Austin, Tex. He’s gotten off to a solid start to his first IndyCar campaign, and Saturday picked up his first career IndyCar podium with a third-place finish. The 23-year-old was also the biggest mover of the race, improving 11 spots from his P14 starting position.

Alexander Rossi, where are you?: Rossi’s season has been plagued by mechanical issues, and his bad luck continued Saturday with a disappointing 19th-place finish. None of what has happened to the Andretti Autosport driver has been his fault, but no one gets extra points out of sympathy. Rossi, who has finished P2 and P3, respectively, over the last two seasons in the final points, will wake up for this morning’s race sitting 22nd in the standings, a massive 124 points behind Dixon. If his luck continues this Sunday, is he written off in the championship hunt?

There is no rest for the weary, as Race 2 will take place at just after 11 a.m. local time this morning. Then it’s back home for four days before heading to Iowa Speedway for next weekend’s two-night, under the lights bullring extravaganza.

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media

3 Things, Indy GP Edition

After a 14-month absence, the NTT IndyCar series finally made it back to the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

What happened today? A little bit old, and a little bit new.

On road courses, it’s still Will Power, and everyone else. I’d really like to know how many times in the Fast Six qualifying era Will Power has swooped in with a flier at the last moment and stole the soul of another driver. It happened again today, as Power knocked Jack Harvey off the top of the pylon with a lap that was almost two-tenths of a second better than Harvey, who was looking for his first career IndyCar pole. For Power, it’s old had, as he now has captured the Indy GP four times in his career. Overall, it was his 58th career pole, moving him just nine poles away from matching Mario Andretti’s IndyCar record. No doubt Harvey wanted a pole for himself and Michael Shank Racing, but his P2 starting spot is a career best.

The Champ has work to do. Power and teammate Josef Newgarden both made the Fast Six Friday, but their teammate has a lot of work to do when high noon rolls around today. Simon Pagenaud, the defending GP and, of course, Indianapolis 500 champion, couldn’t find the speed and could only manage a P10 showing in his qualifying group. That means the Frenchman will start 20th on the grid today. If he needs some inspiration, though, he can look back to 2018 and Scott Dixon battling from a P18 starting position to a P2 finish.

Keep an eye on Askew. Rookie Oliver Askew was quick all day before running out of grip during the Fast Six. He will start fifth today in his second IndyCar start. He won’t be the youngest driver near the head of the field, though, as 20-year-old Colton Herta will start P3. Herta started fourth last year in the GP but finished 23rd, then dropped out of the Indy 500 in the opening laps to finish P33. He’s looking to get some positive IMS mojo going.

Predictions: I’m changing the predictions I made on The Rumble Strip podcast this week and I am going with Will Power to win, Askew to finish second and Conor Daly to finish third.

Rumble Strip Podcast

Speaking of, have you listened to this week’s podcast? Co-host Eric Hall and I talk about the latest IndyCar news, as well as our thoughts on the GP and the new and improved IMS under the leadership of Roger Penske. You can listen to it here on SoundCloud, and you can also find it on iTunes, Podbean and iHeart Radio.

Photo credit: John Cote/IndyCar Media

Indy 500 to Try to Run With Fans

It’s been a rough week, a rough month, and a rough year, hasn’t it?

For the sports world, it’s been 106 days — and counting — since it was kicked in the…well, you know where, by the results of COVID-19.

(Editor’s note: Yo, the 19 in the name refers to when it was discovered. Carry on.)

In every facet of our lives, we have been desperately trying to get ourselves back to the point where everything feels just a little bit more “normal”. We as humans thrive on normality, the same things being there at the same place and the same time as they always are.

Sports are no different, and we are discovering how much athletics are ingrained in our culture, not to mention our psyche. I think there is a subconscious feeling among many — and I’ll admit, myself included — that once sports are back then everything will be back on its way to being OK.

They are certainly trying. IndyCar, NASCAR and the PGA Tour are all back to competing in the US, with major league baseball and the NBA trying to follow.

The Indianapolis 500 is trying to get back in the right direction too, announcing Friday that they will hold the race on August 23 with a maximum of 50 percent of its capacity in attendance. Fans can opt out for a credit for future ticket purchases, or opt-in to be reticketed and possibly moved to other seats for social distancing measures.

With just under 60 days to go, from a business standpoint it was a necessary decision, but the timing could not have been worse. While Illinois is moving into Phase 4 of their reopening, Indiana also doing well, and neighboring states looking to be moving in a positive direction, still many states aren’t, and we are learning the harsh reality that we’re all in it for the duration in one way or another. Like it or not.

I’m torn.

Full disclosure: I made the decision to opt-in on my tickets. As an optimist, I’m hoping that over the next seven weeks enough progress is made that we can masks up and find a bit of desolate spot somewhere in the grandstand and enjoy the race. I’ve also missed just one race since 2005 (2008) and I’m holding onto the hope that we can still go, because the race means that much to me, as does the tradition of spending the weekend with my two boys.

On the flip side, I’m pissed off about this. Like many people, I took this seriously from the jump. I stayed at home for close to a month, to this day I still put a mask on whenever I go inside or am in close proximity to other people. Over the last 3 1/2 months I’ve never been more than and hour away from home.

Lots of us did this, because we saw something that was bigger than ourselves. I did it because it was the right thing to do, and I did it in hopes that I could go to the Indy 500 or watch a game at Wrigley Field this summer. I did it so that I could be back on the campus of NIU and cover the football and basketball teams this year. I did it to keep myself and anyone around me safe.

Yet, here we are, on June 26 and it’s the same song and dance. I commend IMS and IndyCar for trying to somehow get this done, but at the same time I think it’s going to eventually be an act of futility. Sure, I kept my tickets, but do I think people will be in the stands on August 23? No. Do I believe fans will be in the stands in October? Probably not.

That’s what’s maddening, both personally and as a race fan. Our world is taking two steps forward and one step back, and then we are shooting ourselves in the foot for good measure.

Like I said, I’m torn. If the race were today, I wouldn’t be going. There’s just too much we don’t know right now about the surge in cases we are now experiencing. I’m hoping that over the course of the next two months we can make some better progress. If I feel safe, I’ll go. If I don’t, I’ll put the tickets up somewhere for someone who does to enjoy the race.

In the meantime: mask up, wash your hands, and keep yourself safe. Hopefully we’ll see each other in August.

Rumble Strip Podcast

We had a few technical glitches with this week’s so, so instead I posted an abbreviated show with an interview with 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice. You can find it on iTunes, SoundCloud, Podbean and iHeart Radio.

Listen to it here!

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media

Rosenqvist, Ericsson Ready to Begin Sophomore Seasons

Separated by a couple of years in age and with different career arcs, Swedish drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist didn’t have a lot of interaction on the track while they were building their careers in the European junior ranks.

That changed last year when both entered the IndyCar series for their rookie campaigns in 2019, and now has moved to another level as they are now teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing.

With their rookie seasons now behind them, they are both looking to make an impact with CGR as the season opens Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

For Rosenqvist, all 2019 was missing was a victory, as he won the pole at the Indy GP, picked up two podiums, including one at Mid-Ohio where he was a pass away from now-teammate Scott Dixon from winning, and finished sixth in points. He also finished five points ahead of Colton Herta to capture the series’ Rookie of the Year title.

Rosenqvist has spent his entire career trotting the globe and driving anything that has wheels, so he was well-known among most IndyCar fans, especially given his stint driving Indy Lights in 2013. If he had one Achilles heel last season it was on ovals, where he had an average finish of P17.

Some of that wasn’t his fault, having been caught up in accidents both at the Indy 500 and Pocono, but the truth is even when he did finish races, his best effort was a P11 at Gateway.

Ovals are definitely a point of emphasis for him this season.

“I think going to Texas is going to be cool because my biggest improving thing from last year is definitely ovals,” Rosenqvist told the media during an IndyCar Zoom call. “That’s been a thing I’ve been thinking mostly about during the off-season. I think I have more to gain than anything else.

“Starting off in Texas, it’s going to be a nice feeling to see how much of that work has paid off, where we sort of stand compared to the others, especially on the ovals and superspeedways straight off the bat in the beginning of the year. Yeah, it’s going to be fun.”

Ericcson’s 2019 season was a little less successful as he was making the switch to IndyCar after making a total of 97 starts in Formula 1. Driving for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, he managed a podium at Detroit 2, but his only other Top 10 finishes came in the form of P7 results at Barber and Texas. He missed the race at Portland due to one final Formula 1 reserve driver commitment and finished 17th in the final standings.

“For me everything was new last year,” Ericsson said. “It was a complete new series. All the tracks were new, the cars, everything. It was a very steep learning curve for me. I felt throughout the year I was progressing, sort of getting into it more and more.

“I think one of the biggest things that I found with IndyCar is just the way you have to be complete as a driver because we go to so many different types of tracks. It’s everything from short ovals to superspeedways to street tracks to sweeping road courses. You need to be a complete driver to be competitive in this series.

“The competition in this series is extremely high, one small mistake and you’re down towards the bottom of the field. You need to get everything right, get the car set up well, then really maximize in qualifying and the race.”

Changing teams has been a new challenge, but he’s tried to use the longer break to get more familiar with life at CGR and getting up to speed with one of the most successful teams in IndyCar history.

“It’s been a long and strange off-season already, a long off-season in IndyCar,” Ericsson said. We were ready in St. Pete, but it was called off in the last minute, (after that) it’s about preparing yourself even more.

“I feel happy and confident in myself that I’ve done everything to be prepared as possible to start the season now. I feel really good with the team and I think we’ve done all the preparations possible. We are more than ready to start the season.”

Both drivers were very active on iRacing during the spring, participating in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. Ericcson nearly won at the final race at Indianapolis, using a courageous move down the backstretch and into Turn 3 to move into the point, only to be wrecked by Pato O’Ward one corner later.

The experience wasn’t for naught, though, as it gave Ericsson even more of an opportunity to work with the people who will be up on the box for him this season.

“It’s been really good this extra time,” Ericsson said, “especially the iRacing Series has been great for me to get that relationship started with my engineer, Brad Goldberg and my spotter Bruce (Kempton). We’ve already started working in a racing environment. It feels like we definitely have started that process so we can continue that now when we get to the racetrack for real. That’s been really good and really useful.”

Before any season begins, there is plenty of optimism, of course, but there is also plenty of excitement. The IndyCar season finished last September and last hosted an oval race at Gateway back in August, so just getting back in a car in anger is a welcome sight for both drivers. The one-day show will be a bit of a challenge for everyone involved, but both feel up to it.

“I’ve heard a question, How do you prepare for only one day?” Rosenqvist said. “I think it’s mostly mentally, you just have to set your mind up that it’s going to be a long day. You’re going to be almost a different person at the end of the day compared to the beginning.

“But it’s pretty cool. You put us in a tough situation, I think that’s what people want to see as well. People watching on TV, they want to see us do something difficult, see a good race. That’s what they’re going to get I’m pretty sure.”

Ericsson agreed.

“Yeah, I feel it’s fine,” he said. “When race time comes, I think everyone will be up to speed. Obviously the race is going to be tough with quite warm temperatures, the track already being a physical track. It’s going to be a tough one for sure, but everybody is in the same situation.

“Personally I’ve been working really, really hard this off-season to prepare myself. I feel really strong and ready both in my body and mind. I’m ready to take on a tough day of driving. Can’t wait to go there and do it.”

The Rumble Strip podcast

Felix Rosenqvist will be my guest on this Friday’s show, but before you listen to that one, check out my other episodes where I talk IndyCar racing with Conor Daly and Charlie Kimball, and catch up with FR Americas champion Dakota Dickerson. You can listen here on iTunes.

Photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Indy Lights Put On Hold

As if the 2020 racing season couldn’t get any stranger.

News originally broken by Steve Wittich of Trackside Online Sunday night was confirmed on Monday as the Indy Lights announced it was going on hiatus for the 2020 season.

The full release from Indy Lights can be found here.

While Indy Lights will not be on track this season for the first time since 1986 when it was known as the American Racing Series, the other two rungs to the Road to Indy Ladder, USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000, did confirm that they will both be racing a full schedule this year.

“The effects of the global pandemic on businesses, including racing, have been severe,” Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions said in a release. “The changes to our overall calendar of races as well as each event weekend’s scheduling and the ability for some of our drivers to compete has impacted the Indy Lights series far more harshly than our other two championships. With less of a cushion to begin with, it became increasingly apparent that the 2020 season was in jeopardy and the best plan was to take a pause, reconstitute for 2021, and do our best to enhance the Indy Lights championship for next season.

“After discussions with IndyCar and understanding of their firm commitment to Indy Lights going forward, we, together, decided to suspend the 2020 Indy Lights season. We recognize that this will cause some hardships, but we hope all participants will realize the necessity of this decision and we look ahead to 2021 with a promise of better things to come.”

It’s unfortunate that this is happening, but it’s the correct decision. With only six confirmed cars in the field, it could hardly be called a competitive situation. Races would in effect be glorified practice sessions, and while the prize of a lot of money and a ride in next year’s Indy 500 for the series champion is nice, it’s more important to have a season that benefits all drivers, regardless if they were championship contenders or not.

What’s also unfortunate is that this decision sends a lot of drivers and crew members scrambling. Drivers don’t want to lose a season from their careers and crew have bills to pay, so hopefully all involved find a landing spot somewhere this season.

There’s no doubt that Indy Lights is a vital part of the Road to Indy ladder. A majority of the current IndyCar field cut their teeth in Indy Lights, and in the last two years alone the series has graduated three promising drivers to the big cars in Oliver Askew, Pato O’Ward and Rinus Veekay.

Of the drivers who would’ve been racing this season, Kyle Kirkwood is a lock to jump to IndyCar in the future, and Robert Megennis and Rasmus Lindh both have that potential as well.

No doubt Indy Lights will be back in 2021, and if the holdovers return along with the addition of the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 and FR Americas champions, it could end up fielding a pretty stout field.

The Rumble Strip podcast

Have you checked out my podcast yet? In my latest episodes, I have conversations with Conor Daly, Dakota Dickerson and Charlie Kimball. You can hear it on SoundCloud and check it out here on iTunes.

Photo credit: Chris Bucher/IndyCar Media

Racing’s Back! Let’s Head to Texas!

After a 2 1/2 month hiatus, NASCAR brought racing back with a 400-mile race at Darlington won by Kevin Harvick.

I don’t expect many of you watched much of the race. I wasn’t planning on it, but to my surprise, my 19-year-old son Kevin, thanks to YouTube, somehow became a NASCAR fan over the time of quarantine. Don’t worry, he still loves IndyCar and can’t wait for the 500 in August.

I thought the race was pretty blah. They still had too many cautions for my taste and unless it’s Indy, I don’t have the attention span for a race that went almost four hours. The race would’ve been much better had it been 300 miles.

Still, it was interesting to watch the broadcast and think of how things will be when IndyCar takes to the track at Texas in three weeks’ time.

I’m not going to lie, it was a bit bizarre too. The post-race interview with Harvick in front of empty grandstands was awkward, and it’s difficult for the broadcasters — in this case Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon — to get into the energy of the race when they are in a studio and not the booth.

I think they should be allowed on-site and social distanced in the booth. It’s not any different than hosting media in the press area, which did happen yesterday. I know that there are more people in the booth than just Mike and Jeff, but I think that’s a change they should make going forward.

But, that’s the new normal for right now so if we want racing on track, this is how it is going to be.

By the looks of it, NASCAR did what it could to keep everyone as safe as possible, with health checks, masks and distancing, but with several hundred people in a confined area, you can only do so much.

The conversation that is going on in the NBA and Major League Baseball right now is if they get back to playing this summer and a player tests positive for COVID-19, what happens next? Do you shut the league down again, or test, trace and keep going?

So far I haven’t heard any discussion from the racing sanctioning bodies, and I’m curious to know, especially given they will be racing four times (or more if they run support races) in the next 10 days. For IndyCar, gathering as much information as it can over the next three weeks will go a long way towards having a successful season.

Because that should be the ultimate goal: safely putting on a full season that crowns a champion at St. Pete on Oct. 25. I know a lot of people in the paddock, and I care about them.

Most importantly, I don’t want to see the drivers lose a season off of their careers. We can be fans forever, I plan on writing forever, but the drivers don’t have that luxury. They can’t say “oh, I’ll just tack a year onto the end of my career”, because that’s not how it works with professional athletes.

It’s like the scene in the baseball movie “Moneyball”.

Their careers are finite, and at some point, they either tell themselves or someone tells them that they can’t do it any longer. Alex Rossi won’t have an Age 28 season ever again, and Josef Newgarden an Age 29 season.

Tony Kanaan is still doing it at 45, but he’s not the same driver he was when he was 30 and 31 in 2004-05. He won five times and posted 20 podiums in 33 races between those seasons, and was the 2004 champion and 2005 runner-up. Even if he was in the best ride in the series, I don’t know if he could approach those numbers.

That’s not any indictment of TK, whose legacy is already set in stone. It’s just the reality that time catches up to us, even someone who is the ultimate Ironman.

As I write this, Texas has announced they are open for pro sports on June 1, which means the IndyCar race is now officially on. That’s good news. What will be even better news is that things go well enough to move on to Road America, Richmond, and onward throughout the summer.

The blueprint has been set, now it’s time to get started.

Pole Day

Everyone’s May traditions in Indy started somewhere. For me, it started on Pole Day.

I attended my first Pole Day in 1979, which you can read about here, and today would’ve been my 21st Pole Day. Like all of you, I started out sitting in the stands, watching Time Trials and wondering what it would be like to be on the other side of the track, in the pits and Gasoline Alley, where all of the action is.

After 33 years, I finally made it! I covered the 2012 pole day as part of the Social Media Garage, spent 2017 as part of Buddy Lazier’s team, then was part of the media last year. Being part of a team in 2017 is one of the highlights of my life, and I’m in a qualifying photo that will be around forever.

I say that very humbly. One of the best things about reaching this point is that I feel like I represent my family, friends, people I’ve met at the track, and the people who have supported my blog over the years and now listen to my podcast. I hope all of you know that, because you are the audience that I have in mind when I write.

I was all set to cover Pole Day 2020. Right now, I should be in bed in a hotel or AirBnB in Indianapolis, trying to quell my excitement and muster up a few hours of sleep. Instead, I’m sitting at my kitchen table in South Elgin. My 15-year-old cat, Kitty, is sitting on the table in front of me, and my sweet boy Boomer is asleep on the living room floor.

It’s actually a beautiful night. The door to the deck is open and I can hear crickets in the woods out back. Looking at the forecast for Indianapolis for Saturday and it looks like rain. Kind of fitting, isn’t it?

One thing Indy has always represented to me is new beginnings. The 500 aside, I love the month of May. The leaves are coming back on the trees, it’s getting warmer by the day, and it’s awesome after several months of cold, snowy weather to finish the day out on the deck while getting ready for the start of summer. We’d be hitting the 50-game mark of the baseball season right now, and my birthday is on May 25, which means the celebration always gets stretched to Memorial Day weekend, and sometimes even beyond.

There’s certainly a large void in all of our lives, right now, and the best thing we can do is stay safe and be supportive of each other. I want to be at IMS in August, and I’ll do anything I have to in order for that to happen. Hopefully you feel the same way!

But for now, all we have are memories, which isn’t bad. It’s funny, but when I think my memories of Pole Day, I always go back to the 1980s when I was in junior high and high school.

The first two years we went to Time Trials we were living in Elwood, which is up State Route 37, past Noblesville and about an hour from the track. Late in the summer of 1980, we moved to Germantown Hills, Ill., which is just across the Illinois River from Peoria. So from 1981-88 we would get up early in the morning and commute over to the track for Pole Day.

Of course, while Pole Day was officially the second Saturday (or Sunday) in May, for me it started even earlier than that. Sometime in April I’d start going through my old programs and checking books out of the library to get ready. I’d fill my brain with as much information as possible so I’d be ready to go when we got to IMS.

We also subscribed to the Indy Star for the month, and I would race home from school to open up the paper and read the day’s reports from the track. It didn’t matter to me that the paper was at that time a couple of days old, it was new to me, and that’s all that mattered.

Weather reports were a lot different too. Peoria is a lot like Terre Haute, somehow the weather there always seemed to eventually make it over to Indy. I remember a couple of times waking up at 5:30 a.m. and hearing my dad on the phone with some poor soul with the Indy Star.

I love my dad and miss him (he passed in 2004), but in my teenage mind he became an old man about the time he hit 45 or so. Despite spending most of his day on the phone at work, his phone etiquette was a little rough.

“Hey,” he’d bellow into the phone. “What’s the weather like over there?”

Then I’d hear the footsteps as he walked to my room for the yay or nay. He was something with the weather, though, because every time it was a nay, we still never missed seeing cars on track for qualifying. It was always washed out.

If it was a yay, we’d jump in the car and make the 210-mile drive. About an hour outside of town — Crawfordsville, maybe (?) — we’d tune to WIBC and listen to their traffic and track reports the rest of the way in.

Again, I love my dad, but he was a cheap man. The drive over may have taken about 3 1/2 hours or so, but we always had to factor in the 30-minute walk from wherever free or cheap space we found into the track.

One of the cool things I love about entering a baseball stadium is walking through the tunnel to find a beautiful, green field spread out in front of me. IMS is the same way. We’d climb the what sometimes seemed like hundreds of steps to get up into the Paddock Penthouse near the start/finish line and get to the top of the grandstands, where you could see IMS in all of its glory.

That’s the thing about IMS, to me it’s a living, breathing place. When I see it, I see something that is alive and kicking, albeit with ghosts in every corner. Every time I go inside the track it takes my breath away for a second. In the last 41 years of my life, not a single day has gone by where I haven’t thought of her.

Eventually we made it to our seats, munching on sandwiches my mom made the night before, and it was time to qualify. There would always be a big rush in the first hour, and then, as Steve McQueen said, there was a lot of waiting. Pole Day was much more strategic back then, because with tires and equipment, the track was so incredibly fickle. If the track got too hot, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be a break of 2-3 hours in the afternoon.

When cars were on track, though, amazing things would happen. Between 1982 and 1992 I saw the one-lap track record fall 17 times, and the four-lap record fall 15 times. In 1979, Rick Mears won the pole at just over 193 mph, and 13 years later, Roberto Guerrero was the first man to officially break the 230 mph barrier.

Between drivers with huge huevos and the voice of Tom Carnegie, it was a cool time.

Once they had run through the qualifying line and the track had gone quiet for the day, I stop at a gift shop for a t-shirt and we’d head home. One thing I remember from those days was how often I’d look back at the Speedway as we walked back to the car, because I knew that I wasn’t going to see the track again for another year.

That was our tradition for about 15 years. We were joined by other people here and there, including my little brother Tim, who is nine years younger than I am, who officially became part of the tradition in 1986 or 1987, not quite sure which one. My brother annoyed me back then, so I didn’t think what year he became part of the group important enough to file away.

It all ended after 1995. My dad and brother lived outside of Atlanta, and I moved to Ohio in May, 1994, then to the Chicago area in 1998. I later had two kids, so Indy took a bit of a back burner to me for a while. And then there was the split…but we don’t have to talk about that.

Anyone who is a fan of the Indy 500 knows when their fandom and subsequent traditions began. My passion for the 500 was fueled during those special, once-a-year opportunities with my dad. One day a year, that’s all I had, and my life revolving around that one day is what fueled my passion. That got it started, and when I lived in Indianapolis from 1989-94, going to the track became a regular occurrence and took my love to the next level.

Did I mention that I’ve also mention I ran the track eight times as a participant in the Indy Mini Marathon? I’m running the Mini next year, you heard it here first.

But the years I was making that trip from Peoria, man that was an amazing time, and one that I will cherish forever. Some of the people that I spent time with then are gone, others are no longer a part of my life, and others have just gone on with other things. I’m the only one left of that group of people who lives and dies for this crazy sport where human beings strap into fighter jets with wheels in the quest to prove who is the fastest. Now that I know a lot of them, they are bigger heroes to me now than they were back then.

It only takes a photo, or a song, or a mention on social media to take me back to those days. It was certainly an amazing time.

So when today comes and goes, I’m not going to think about how sad I am that it isn’t happening. I’m going to think about those days where my dad and I would spend seven hours in the car to spend 6-7 hours at the track. My dad worked a lot, and as the years went by, he traveled a lot too, sometimes three weeks out of every month.

Still, Pole Day was non-negotiable, as race day is to me today. Sure, we played a lot of golf and spent a lot of time together when he was home, but I’ll forever remember the fact that Pole Day was our special day together. I’m sure after traveling all week that the last thing my dad wanted to do was spend another day on the road, but when it came to Indy he got me. He knew what that day meant to me, and my mom did too, as rain on Saturday meant we weren’t home on Mother’s Day.

I’m thankful, and fortunate. And lucky. I’m here because people get me. I’m here because people believed in me. I believed in myself.

I’m not going to lie. The next two weeks are going to suck. But you know what? I’m going to savor Pole Day. I’m going to remember the special times I spent with my dad. I’m going to watch some clips of those years we spent together, and I’m going to remember what made all of this so special.

Will it be the best Pole Day ever? Nope. What it will do is it will remind me of how I got here, and how I should look towards the future. It’s also a reminder to live in the moment and never take anything for granted.

Here’s my challenge for you today: think about how you got here. Think about what made you a fan of this series and the greatest race in the world. Think about the people that got you here, and the people you’ve met who have made the Month of May even better.

We can’t control what happens — or didn’t happen — today, but instead of being sad, think about how great it will be when the time comes that we are back at 16th and Georgetown enjoying the time of our lives.

Remember, this is all only temporary. Indy is forever.

Racing to the Movies

I’m a big movie guy. Huge. Large. Enormous. I love seeing movies in the theater, and as an avowed nocturnal creature, I spend a lot of late nights watching a movie (or two) on one of the 100 or so movie channels I have at my fingertips.

For the record, my favorite movie of all time is The Martian, followed by the original Bourne trilogy. I don’t consider myself a Matt Damon fan per se — even though Ford v. Ferrari is on my list — but he’s just been in a lot of movies I’ve liked.

Racing movies have a spot in my heart too, and in honor of the 2001 CART-inspired movie Driven being released this week, I decided to throw down a few of my favorites.

Sadly, Driven is not on my list, but here are six that are. If you want to read the comprehensive oral history of that Sylvester Stallone masterpiece, check out Marshall Pruett’s brilliant prose here. Even if you aren’t all that interested, check it out anyway because Marshall gave up almost an entire day of his life to watch this movie and write 12,000 words about it. I don’t know if it’s was a labor of love, but I admire Marshall’s dedication. I would’ve given up by the “quarters on the track” scene…maybe earlier.

Here’s my list, in no uncertain order.

(Editor’s note: I originally wrote a movie column for my 15 Days in May blog back in March, 2012, which you can read here. As you can tell I’ve made a few revisions since then.)

Senna (2011). I know this is a documentary, but it’s still on my list. I’m especially keen to put this on the top because Friday marks 26 years since we lost Ayrton Senna at Imola. I wasn’t an F1 fan during Senna’s career, but YouTube and this documentary really opened my eyes to his greatness, both on and off the track, and now I consider him one of my all-time favorite drivers. You can read my 15DIM review of this movie here.

Ford v. Ferrari (2019). I think the key to this movie is you have to take it at face value. It’s been well-documented that Leo Beebe isn’t the a-hole he’s depicted as in the film, and using Auto Club Speedway as a substitute for Daytona in the 24 Hours of Daytona scene is almost unforgivable. Still, it tells a good story, has lots of talented actors, and shows a lot of the Southern California car culture of the 60s. I found the movie entertaining, and my review is here. I watched it again on Sunday night, and I wish one thing they had focused on more was the true talent of Ken Miles. He was a great driver in the SCCA, was well known on the west coast for his engineering skill and had a reputation as a quick, tough, but clean driver.

Rush (2013). Many consider this one of the best racing movies ever made. I think the strength of the movie is that it really capture the vibe of Formula 1 in the mid-70s, which I think is the height of what Formula 1 was all about at the time. The competitors drove hard, many of them partied hard and they all got lots of girls. Knowing that you had a 20 percent chance of dying every time you strapped into a car left the men who raced at the time living in the moment and not giving a crap about what was waiting around the corner. The comparison and contrast between Niki and James is what made this movie — and their rivalry — work. Niki was focused and measured in everything he did, while James never thought more than 30 seconds or so into the future. Somehow, it worked for both of them as they both became World Champions. Was 1976 the peak year of James Hunt’s life? Probably, but what a year it was.

Grand Prix (1966). James Garner is an American F1 driver who is fired from one ride after critically injuring a teammate and then joins another team, but not before he hooks up with his ex-teammate’s wife, who justifies what she is doing because she was going to leave him anyway. Yves Montand plays an aging driver who is facing the end of his career but wants one last triumph. The racing scenes are good and the ending has that kind of 1960s and early 70s vibe where the movie just…ends, usually not very happily. The racing scenes are excellent, and Garner gets props for doing his own driving. In fact, according to the imdb.com website, the movie used Formula 3 cars and Garner held his own in pickup races between filming. It was also a reflection of the times as 10 of the 32 drivers in the movie, including Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren, were killed in racing-related accidents over the next decade.

Le Mans (1971). Steve McQueen starred in this one, and stayed true to himself, not saying much and staying in badass form the entire movie. (I say that with a lot of awe, by the way. McQueen didn’t need to say anything to totally take over the screen.) McQueen plays Michael Delaney, an American driver who the year before had been involved in a fatal accident that had killed a fellow driver, something he was still haunted by. There are several plotlines and twists, but the racing and the cars are the stars of this film. The movie relies heavily on footage shot from the 1970 race, and the depiction of the tense moments before the race starts and the frenzy in the first few minutes as the car take the track are awesome. The in-car footage is great. Again, according to imdb.com, there is no dialog from the major characters in the first 37 minutes of the movie. They just filmed the cars and let them do the talking. Now that I’ve actually been to a 24-hour race, this movie just makes this movie even better.

Talladega Nights (2006). Come on, given my wicked sense of humor I had to put this in here. Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, who lives the “if you ain’t first, you’re last” credo in all areas of his life. Like Driven, the movie is utterly funny and ridiculous, but unlike it that’s because it was really written that way. Ricky ascends to superstardom in NASCAR with the help of his sidekick Cal Naughton Jr. (ever notice there are a lot of Juniors in stock car racing?). Like Days of Thunder, Ricky loses his ride and his confidence after a horrible crash, then comes home from the hospital to find out he has lost everything else as well (even his wife, who leaves him for Cal because as a racing wife “I…don’t…work). Living at home with his mother and delivering pizzas, Ricky hits the comback trail with the help of his long-lost father (played to the hilt by Gary Cole) and his tough love driving lessons, and teams up with his PR chick Susan to face his fears and former F1 driver Jean Girard in a really, really bizarre finale. But after watching this year’s Daytona 500, I actually could see it happening.

Nights is funny as hell and is chock full of movie quotes that I use on a regular basis. And who names their kids Walker and Texas Ranger? Brilliant. Still, one pet peeve bothers the heck out of me about this movie and a lot of other racing movies. Why when Ricky and Cal are going to pass cars, they downshift? That bugs me like you would never believe! Nobody does that, especially in a stock car where doing that at speed would put a piston through the hood of the car. I guess you need some sort of trigger for the audience when you are going into beast-mode, so that might be the explanation. Whatever.

The Rumble Strip. Did you guys know that I have a podcast? Well, I do! Check out this week’s episode where I have an awesome conversation with Conor Daly. You can find it here on iTunes.

Three Things: Virtual COTA Edition

The IndyCar Challenge season reached its penultimate race Saturday as the drivers took on the Circuit of the Americas, and as had been the case of the previous four events, put on another great show.

Let’s review.

Is anybody “embarrassed”? I found it interesting that a motorsports journalist said that Formula One driver Lando Norris “embarrassed” the field in winning the race yesterday. Really? I thought is was great that IndyCar extended the invitation to Norris but the fact he won the race means absolutely nothing. Besides being an elite-level, real-life driver, the 20-year-old Norris is also an elite simracer. There are probably several of the best simracers in the world who could’ve done what he did Saturday. Besides, where was that kind of lede when Scott McLaughlin won a few weeks ago? It’s a video game, it’s fun. Let’s not make anything more of it than that.

Sim life vs. Real life. Pato O’Ward, Norris’ McLaren “teammate”, finished second Saturday, and showed that his success at COTA in 2019 translated into the virtual world as well. Running just the second IndyCar race of his career, O’Ward qualified his Carlin machine eighth after missing out on the Firestone Fast Six by just .09 seconds. That’s where he also finished on race day for the best finish to date of his IndyCar career. What does he have on store for real-life 2021?

See you in Indy! Dammit I wish that were true! With the iRacing series wrapping up and the calendar switching to May, the final race will be 175 miles of racing at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week. At first the idea was to go to a track where IndyCar doesn’t race — my pick would’ve been Monza — the choice to go to IMS is a smart one and I think will get a lot of people tuning in. Here’s something I wish they would do, though: race the road course before the broadcast window and show highlights during the race. With so many drivers streaming the race on social platforms, we would still be able to watch it. I know the drivers can only commit so a certain amount of time, but that would be fun. By the way, the race is open to all IndyCar teams plus race winners, so McLaughlin and Norris will be eligible to race Saturday.

I still hope they have something in store for the real race day on May 24. I still can’t believe we won’t be racing that day.

Photo credit: NBCSports/IndyCar Media