Words Matter

When the racing industry was shut down and drivers of all disciplines began racing online, it seemed like it would be a nice diversion to pass the time before we actually got to see cars back on track, which hopefully happens early this summer.

Hopefully.

It has ended up becoming a lot more than that. IndyCar and NASCAR are both competing in sponsored cars on nationally televised broadcasts that include spotters, engineers and strategists. It was only natural, competitive people compete, no matter the stakes. In fact, sometimes bragging rights are the best stakes of all.

The races have been fun and exciting, and thanks to various social media platforms that allow us to hear dialogue and reactions from drivers, it’s given us a little bit of an insight into their personalities, which I think is a great way for more fan engagement.

I enjoyed all of it, but I also realized that there was a good chance at some point someone was gonna slip and say something that wasn’t intended for public consumption.

Sunday night, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson became that someone, dropping a racial slur into an open mic during an iRacing event at Monza.

We all know what has happened in the backlash since: he’s received suspensions from both his team and sanctioning body, he has lost sponsorship from Chevrolet, McDonald’s and Credit One, and there will probably be more fallout in the days ahead.

Everyone’s PR, HR and legal teams have put together statements, and the damage control has begun. Where the free-fall ends, no one knows.

I’m not going to rail on Larson — at least not all that much. I listened to the audio a handful of times, and like others, was more caught by surprise by how easily it rolled off of his tongue. So, for him to say “that isn’t me” or “that’s not how I was raised”, that may be so, but it sounded like that word flows from his mouth more than he’d care to admit.

Although I shouldn’t be surprised, I hear lots of people his age use that word in regular conversation when referring to each other. It’s part of the vocabulary for a lot of people, young and old.

So it’s not really the fact he said it, it’s the environment in which he said it. Like many people, I have a little bit of a swearing problem. I swear, a lot, and like Ralphie’s dad in A Christmas Story, I weave the F-word effortlessly in a colorful tapestry more than I care to admit.

But here’s the thing: in a work environment, I rarely if ever use profanity. It’s not professional and I know that people who are outside of my family and friends may find it offensive. I slip up sometimes, but part of my own personal brand is to be professional and show integrity. When I go places where my brand is on display, such as when I cover a game, I always make sure to dress well and treat others with respect.

My writing speaks for itself, but if I don’t present myself the way I do, no one will notice what I write. I feel that happened in the recent past, and it’s not going to happen again.

That’s how I want to project myself when I’m on the job. When I’m at home, it’s sleeping until noon and jeans and hoodies, but when I am representing someone or something, I want to come across as professionally as possible, especially given the people I am doing that for I might want to work for someday.

Hello NIU Athletics, are you listening?

That’s not saying I’m perfect, because there were times over last summer I did things that were really off-brand for me. I recommitted myself to being at my best since then, and am happier for doing it. My writing has improved as well.

One thing I’ve learned about athletes is that they are like the rest of us, there is a person and a persona. For some of them, both match up perfectly, they are the same person no matter the situation they find themselves in. They are the minority, for the rest of them, who they are in private and who they are in public are two different things.

But for everyone that falls anywhere on that spectrum, the one thing they have to realize is that when they are in the public forum, their persona, and most importantly their brand, is on display. When you put something on social media, do an interview or talk into an open mic, you are at work, because that’s an extension of your job.

As far as Kyle Larson, or anyone else for that matter, I don’t really care what he does and says in the privacy of his own home. That isn’t my business, just like my business isn’t his, or anyone else’s for that matter. I live and let live.

If Larson wants to call his friends n—as in the privacy of his own home, that’s his right. But when it reaches the public domain, then it’s a problem. Some try to call this a “mistake”. No, a “mistake” is when you leave your garage door up overnight and someone steals your weed trimmer. A public figure dropping a racial slur in the public domain is a screw-up of massive proportions.

What bothers me is the argument I’m seeing a lot of today: if rappers and hip-hop artists can use that word without repercussion, why can’t others?

It’s an easy explanation. When you look at those artists, that word is used in their world because when it comes to their brands, there are no repercussions. Sponsorships and other things aren’t connected to the negative connotation of that word. It’s obvious that the people who listen to their songs, the people that write the checks, and the people that make their world go ’round are not offended by what they say.

Their attitude is: if you don’t like our music, than f–k you! And they can feel that way, because for each person they offend, they pick up 10 new listeners. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that’s the world we live in.

But if you are going to make that argument, that’s a sad standard. I would hope that the standard to which we hold the people in our sport would be a bit higher than that. Lots higher. Like, here-to-the-moon-higher. Resorting to that word, in any circumstance, is cheap and makes me question your level of education.

Personally, I wish that word, and all variations of it, would disappear. It’s an ugly word with an ugly history. The fact that people use that word to create massive fortunes is a bit sad to me. But, our world is consumer driven, and they find people to consume it.

I certainly think that Larson should be held to a higher standard than rappers, and I hope you should too. As an IndyCar fan I feel that way. There is no excuse for a professional athlete to use that word, none.

Larson has certainly learned a lesson. No doubt, there should be a penalty and punishment for what he said, but to wish for this to end his career or to permanently banish him to dirt racing forever is mean and short-sided.

He said what he said, but what happens from here? Again, I think he should serve any penalties handed down, then go and sin no more.

We aren’t put on this Earth to be perfect, we are put here to learn and grow and do the best we can as people for the time we are here. Larson will have to rebuild his image in the eyes of many, which will be a difficult thing to do.

Larson, like a lot of pro athletes who have stumbled in the public eye, learned a harsh lesson, that no matter where they are, someone is watching and listening. It’s a tough standard to live by, but that’s what comes with the job.

He’s got a long road ahead, but I wish him luck.

Indy 500 — Postponed

We all saw it coming, but it’s still a bit of a shock.

We found out today that for the first time ever the Indianapolis 500 will not be run in May. Wow, that’s a bit hard to process, yes?

Over the last few weeks as the world has worked through the effects of the COVID-19 virus, the 500 has stood firm on its May 24 date. But, like the rest of the sports world, they finally had to concede today that it was time to move the 500, and the green flag will now fly on Sunday, August 23.

I knew it was coming. I work from home and have been taking all of this very seriously. I only leave my house every 3-4 days, and have been doing my best to distance myself from others. I feel like it’s the right thing to do. I’ve watched the numbers closely, and I knew that barring a dramatic turnaround, the 500 on Memorial Day weekend wasn’t happening.

Still, it was hard to hear the news. Since 1979, the month of May has been my life. This year is (was) to be my 22nd time to see the 500 in person. I’ve seen pole day and race day, as a fan, a member of the media, and as part of a team.

After my divorce, in later relationships I made this clear…Memorial Day is non-negotiable. I will be sitting in the Southwest Vista on the Sunday before Memorial Day (or maybe even better seats) now until the day I die.

The 500 means the world to me, and I know I’m not alone. Still, with everything going on in the world, we have to deal with a new normal, at least this year. I share with the sentiments of lots of other people, that a 500 in August is better than no 500 at all.

Now, I’d rather have it in October during Columbus Day weekend as a winner-take-all, season finale, but I’ll cede to Roger Penske on this one. He is The Man, after all.

Besides, everybody, it looks like we might get 15 Days In…August. Barring any setbacks, or a really cool internship I’m going after, I’ll be there almost every day I can. And on race day, hopefully 300,000 people will join me.

It’s Indy after all. And if you don’t know what Indy means, I don’t know what to tell you. All I can say is let’s go all-in for a 500 in August, and when that time arrives, let’s go all-out like never before.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about the change in the schedule too.

So as it stands now, the doubleheader in Detroit will start the season, the 500 will take up the two weeks in August, and the season will close in St. Pete. I kind of like the idea of the 500 running back-to-back with the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway the next weekend. Anybody see a cool Indy 500/Milwaukee kind of vibe?

Let’s break all of it down. As it stands, 14 races at 13 venues. Long Beach, COTA and Barber look to be out. Outside of Detroit, no doubleheaders scheduled. According to sources St. Pete will be run sometime in October.

You know, I don’t mind St. Pete as the finale. They have been a great partner to IndyCar for a long time and I think that giving them that opportunity is great. Plus, a trip to Florida in October will be fun. If it all goes to plan, we will end the season at St. Pete and begin 2021 at St. Pete. And with a shorter off-season to boot!

Another big move is Indy GP sharing the July 4th weekend with NASCAR. I’m seriously down with that. I think it will be a great weekend, and getting IndyCar in front of some different fans will be a big deal. Actually, getting NASCAR and IndyCar fans to the same track, where we find out we have a lot more in common that we have differently, will be a good thing for all involved. And if it gets any sort of crossover (hello Tony Stewart) that would make the weekend even bigger.

I mean, I don’t think that IndyCar fans would become Cup fans and vice-versa, but it would be great if we could all find some sort of appreciation and mutual ground that would work out for everybody. Our goal should be growing the sport of racing, not fighting dumb and inconsequential battles between us.

In the end, all I want to see this year is some racing. If the 500 is the first race of the year, so be it. If the race gets moved again, so be it. All I want to see is cars on track, and as long as I get to see that in 2020, I will be happy.

But as the schedule stands, I want to give credit to people like Roger Penske, Doug Boles, Mark Miles and Jay Frye. We may all talk about this finagling of the schedule, but it is way, way beyond any of our pay grades.

All of this involves millions of dollars of contracts and moving large pieces. What was announced today involved a massive amount of negotiation, people making large sacrifices and lots and lots of massaging. This was a massive undertaking that lots of us will probably never understand.

Should I say this though…if Roger Penske weren’t involved, would it have all happened? What we have today tells us all we need to know about the future of the series in RP’s hands. He gets things done, and with the moving of the race date, has an extra three months to get everything ready.

So I guess if I don’t see you before then, hopefully I’ll see you in Indy in August! In the meantime, stay inside. Oh, and go wash your hands. Right now. Yeah, go. Right now.

Photo credit: Chris Owens/IndyCar Media

Daly Fills The Gaps In His Schedule

After a solid 2019 as a fill-in driver for three different NTT IndyCar Series teams, Conor Daly was rewarded with a 13-race deal with Ed Carpenter Racing that covered all of the road courses and the Indianapolis 500.

That still left a couple of openings, as Daly would be stepping out of his machine in favor of boss Ed Carpenter on the remaining four ovals on the schedule: Texas, Richmond, Iowa and Gateway. Those weekends were filled in today as Daly agreed to return to Carlin Racing for those four races.

In a “reversal of fortune” type of thing, Daly will be driving the oval races for Max Chilton, who will only run at Indy on the ovals.

Hard to believe that a little over a year ago, Daly’s career was at a crossroads. Without a ride heading into 2019, he caught a lifeline from Andretti Autosport when he was tabbed to run one of their additional cars in the 500. After finishing 10th there, he hooked up with Carlin for the four ovals after Chilton opted out, then came back and ran Portland for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports before closing the season at Laguna Seca with Andretti.

After his P10 at Indy, he finished P11 at Texas and Pocono, and P13 at Iowa. Honestly, those are pretty good finishes for a fill-in driver, who of course runs at a disadvantage to the rest of the full-time drivers in the series.

Having the consistency of 13 races at ECR should help with Daly’s results in 2020, and given his past collaboration with Carlin should help in that situation as well. He has certainly earned the opportunity to run all 17 races this year, so it will be interesting to see how he fares.

Though it isn’t an ideal situation, I wonder if this sets a bit of a blueprint for drivers struggling to find full-time rides in the series. It would be interesting to see if a driver and teams hook up like this in the future. Like I said, not ideal, but if it gets a driver into more races, that’s the end goal.

Daly will be with ECR this weekend at St. Pete, but Chilton will have a new teammate in Florida as Brazilian Felipe Nasr got the call for the No. 31 Carlin entry after a couple of very impressive tests.

The 27-year-old Nasr made 39 Formula 1 starts in 2015-16 and has been competing in sports cars since, and last year won the 12 Hours of Sebring. He is a solid driver who is familiar with Carlin after driving for them in junior series in Europe early in his career.

Since I will be in Cleveland covering the Northern Illinois University men’s basketball team at the Mid-American Conference tournament until Saturday, I’m going to drop my predictions here. The rest of the season they will be part of my race weekend coverage whether I’m at the track or at home.

Winner: Will Power. Because Power’s bar for success is so high, I saw his 2019 season as a bit of a disappointment. Well, at least through the first 13 races. He recovered well and picked up two wins and a second in the last four races to finish the year on a high note. I have the feeling he will bring that success to the start of the season.

Pole: Power. Why not? He’s won the pole at St. Pete seven times in his career, including last year. It’s gonna happen.

Highest-finishing rookie: Oliver Askew. Four drivers will be making their first IndyCar starts on Sunday: Askew, Rinus VeeKay, Alex Palou and Nasr. Askew did well in pre-season testing and comes in on an established — yet redone — team. The Indy Lights champion will get his career off to a good start.

It’s finally time to go racing!

Photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Hinch Is Back!

Sorta.

After having a rough last several months following his ouster from the Arrow McLaren SP team, James Hinchcliffe found a home for at least three IndyCar races this year.

Turns out, he just had to go back to where it all started.

As I speculated in this space a couple of weeks ago, it was announced Tuesday that Hinchcliffe will run the Indy GP, the Indy 500 and Texas for Andretti Autosport. Hinch will have backing from Genesys and will run the No. 29 Andretti Autosport Honda.

The move is a bit of a homecoming for Hinch, whose career took a big step up when he ran for Andretti from 2012-14. He won three of his six career races with AA and in 2012-13 finished a career-best eighth in points.

Hinch’s career over the last three years has been a mixture of good and back luck, mostly bad. He was due for some positive karma, and he definite got it here. A few things had to fall into place before that happened, though, as his seat was expected to go to Fernando Alonso, just as it had in 2017. But in a last-minute decision, the highest-ups in Japan decided they weren’t happy with Alonso’s criticism of their Formula 1 product and wouldn’t sign off on his running Indy with one of their powerplants.

Hinch’s relationship with Honda sits on the other side of the spectrum. He has support from Honda in Canada, and has been featured in US-based Honda ads as well.

All in all, this is a great reunion (as you can see by my choice of photos from 2012). AA gets a former Indy pole-sitter who knows how to run up front, while Hinch is with a program that gives him the chance to win all three races. Not to mention, having Hinch in the paddock in more than a cheerleader or “ambassador” role is a great thing.

What is also a positive is getting a new sponsor involved in the series. The relationship that Hinch and Genesys has is hopefully one that can grow into full-time involvement somewhere. When you look at a team like Michael Shank Racing, the approach seems to be starting small with a driver, sponsor and handful of races, perhaps an association with a larger team, and working towards becoming a full-time team.

Maybe it wouldn’t involve building a team from the ground up, but perhaps building a relationship with a team from the ground up would work.

Hopefully, all of the parties will be able to add one more race to the schedule — Toronto. I do not subscribe to the theory that a sanctioning body or anyone else help a driver or team get a ride, but Toronto is a little exception. There really isn’t another track on the schedule where fans come to root for one particular driver, but the Canadians turn out in support of their hometown guy. As I’ve said before, I don’t interest myself in the business of racing, but I think it would be good business for that to happen.

So, speaking of Alonso, where will he end up? According to this story in the Indy Star, Michael Andretti stated that Alonso is close to having an agreement in place with another team. Who that team is, I don’t know, but I still don’t think he ends up at McLaren.

They have way too much at stake, and it would be a bad look to put Alonso in the race but then see either Pato O’Ward or Oliver Askew not get into the field. O’Ward, in my opinion, is the priority. If he fails to make the race this year it could be bad.

The pressure is on that team, and they have to take care of business. They have to take care of their two primary drivers, and when you have a rookie and a driver who failed to qualify last year, they need all of the team’s attention.

Back to Fred. If McLaren isn’t in the cards, he’s kind of in a precarious position. Penske and Ed Carpenter have already said they don’t have room, and beyond that, do any other Chevy teams have the chance to win he is looking for?

I mean, winning the race is all Alonso is looking to do. Yeah, he loves being in a race car, loves the challenge and loves competing, but he’s got a career goal of winning the 500, not just getting into the race and driving around. Can he find a situation that works for him? Outside of spending his own money on a venture, I don’t think that he can find the situation, not to mention the manpower, to put together a good enough organization to win the race.

At least for this May. Here’s my pull-out-of-my-you-know-where, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about opinion. He starts his own team, puts together a guy to organize it — my choice is John Cummiskey, and I’m not kidding — and goes after it in 2021.

And if he’s looking for a PR guy, I’m here!

Ryan Newman Update

I was so, so happy to see that NASCAR driver Ryan Newman has been released from the hospital after surviving one of the nastiest crashes I’ve seen in a long time.

When you go back to the moments right after the crash, and the hours that passed before we were given an update on his condition, it was really easy to fear the worst. I know I had a lot of trouble sleeping Monday night, and just had this weirdly sick feeling in my stomach all day Tuesday.

This one hit me hard. Ryan survived that crash because of a massive effort by all racing sanctioning bodies to make this sport as safe as possible. But we learned in that moment that maybe things weren’t that safe, and that the sport is still crazy dangerous. That’s a wake-up call to even those of us who have followed racing for decades.

Seeing him walk out of the hospital today was amazing. His daughters still have their dad, and Ryan looks like his life will go on as normal. That’s beautiful.

But the thing that still fills my ADHD brain: why do they still race that way? NASCAR is a sanctioning body that has revenues in the billions of dollars every year. They could end this crazy ass pack racing any time they wanted to. Science is science, there has to be a way to provide good racing without pack racing. There has to be.

The problem is, does NASCAR care about this issue? I don’t think so. In fact, their brand is centered around this. How often do you see commercials centered around pack racing and the spectacular crashes that are involved?

Now that he walked out of the hospital on his own power, does Newman’s crash join their marketing highlights?

I’ve said it so many times before, my focus on on sport. Racing is a competitive sport, it’s no different to me than baseball, basketball or football. A race is a competition, and I feel that is the priority. For far too long, racing has made decisions based solely on what’s best for the fans.

Yeah, fans are the lifeblood of racing, as well as other sports. However, you don’t make them the priority when determining the product on the field, the court and the track. I go to Wrigley Field and see the Cubs play several times a year — all Major League Baseball, the Cubs, their opponent, and the Ricketts family (the owners of the Cubs) owe me it a great customer experience and a nine-inning baseball game.

I love it when the Cubs win. I’ve also been at games where they have lost — badly. Games that are already decided in the second or third innings. Those games are boring, but it’s no one’s fault, and nothing needs to be changed. Fans are the lifeblood to sport, but once the game (or race) starts, they are just witnesses to what goes on the field, not the determining factor.

Racing has gotten away from that. The Indy 500 only owes us a 500-mile race. It isn’t Roger Penske’s job to give me some sort of “Game 7” moment. It’s to provide me with a great fan experience, which doesn’t necessarily center on the race, that’s it. I am just a spectator to the competition that is going down on the track. That’s gotten lost.

Is pack racing exciting? Hell’s yeah! I went to both races at Daytona in 2013 and it was highly entertaining. But since then, my opinion on that kind of racing has changed.

I just don’t find the idea that plate — or is that tapered spacer — racing, is real racing. Is it exciting? Sure. But the longer I go on, the idea of putting human beings in race cars and making racing “exciting” because of the possibility of those cars being involved in a massive crash where everyone cheers is something I can’t get behind.

I don’t care what level of racing you are talking about, pack racing leads to wrecks. It happened in the IRL days and it happens to NASCAR. People try to talk about the “precision racing” that pack racing brings, but really, how good is anyone at that kind of racing? Ultimately, someone hits someone else, no matter how good the drivers involved are. It is way too much to ask even the best drivers to race that way without hitting each other.

What was scary about the Newman situation is that for the first time in a long time, cars didn’t bang off each other like pinballs, fly in the air, and come to a stop where the driver didn’t jump out of his or her machine to cheers from the crowd.

That scared us, and it freaking should. We shouldn’t put people in those kinds of positions for the sake of entertainment. We shouldn’t line cars up time after time and try green/white/checker finishes because we feel we “owe” the fans a green flag finish. That’s not competition, that’s entertainment. And if you are going to do that, then don’t call it racing. Don’t award a championship, don’t make it like it’s something special.

Call it made-for-TV racing, because that’s all it is.

Racing is dangerous, sure. But I hope we have evolved to the point where we are left with a decision — is this kind of racing in the best interests of the drivers?

Thankfully, IndyCar made the decision that it wasn’t. We haven’t seen a pack races in a while, and I’m glad. We see close, tight racing, especially at the Indy 500, but the drivers take good care of each other and still provide finishes that are incredibly exciting and memorable. It can be done.

Over the course of the past several years, I’ve gotten to know almost two dozen IndyCar drivers. What I’ve come away from those experiences is that I care about them as people. I truly worry about what happens to them when they take the track, and I’m relieved when the race is over and everyone is in one piece.

Back in 2012 I had a conversation with Pippa Mann about pack racing, and it changed me, because how she described that kind of racing was flat-out scary, and beyond what we should expect from drivers.

I believe in sport, and because of that I believe decisions should be made based on what is in the best interests of the drivers. They are the ones putting their lives on the line, and if they express any sort of trepidation about a form of racing, their voices deserve to be heard!

I don’t think that pack racing is in the best interest in the drivers. Full stop. Fans shouldn’t be entertained by 20-car crashes, and drivers (human beings) shouldn’t be forced to race that way just to entertain people.

Racing involves a high amount of risk, but my hope is that we all evolve to the point where setting up human beings to race with the “big one” as an expected form of entertainment is no longer an option. Instead, let’s set up races so that the best combination of car, team and driver are identified on a certain day.

If that driver wins by 30 seconds, or 10 seconds, or 0.014 seconds, that’s just what happens. Just the same as if the Cubs win 10-1, lose 10-1 or win 3-2 on a walk-off base hit in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s racing, and while it’s not always “exciting”, it’s real. That’s what we should be going after.

That’s my soap box, and I’m sticking to it.

Q&A With Former IndyCar Driver Raul Boesel

After a two-year career in Formula 1, Raul Boesel ran his first Indy 500 in 1985 and competed in close to 200 American open wheel races over the next 18 seasons.

Boesel competed in the Indianapolis 500 13 times, including three starts on the front row (1993-94, 2002), with a best finish of 3rd in 1989. In 1993, Boesel started third and arguably had the best car in the field, but two stop-and-go penalties led to a 4th-place finish.

His best years in IndyCar came from 1992-94. Driving for Dick Simon Racing, Boesel finished P9, P5 and P7 in points. He also won a sportscar world championship in 1987, in 1988 won the overall title at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, and finished second at LeMans in 1991. This past December, he was inducted into the FIA Hall of Fame.

After finishing his driving career in 2005, Raul became a DJ, and now plays electronic music all over the world. He currently lives in Miami

Raul was nice enough to exchange a couple of e-mails with me (and accept my Facebook friend request) and answered all of my questions. It’s a great conversation and I hope to continue it with Mr. Boesel in Indy in May!

It’s been a while since you wrapped up your racing career, what have you been up to since then?

I’ve always had a passion for music, especially electronic music, and the day I started waking up thinking about music and not my race car I thought that was a signal that it was time to stop racing after almost 30 years. Then I decided to explore being a DJ, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 11 years. I play at festivals, night clubs and private parties all over the world. It’s hard work but a lot of fun. In my free time my wife and I travel on my motorcycle; we’ve ridden across the US and have toured South America.

What do you enjoy about music?

I just try to be the best DJ I can. It takes some effort to understand the audience, and research the music to be up to date and unique. I would love to one day play at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the race at the electronic stage in the middle of the track. What do you think, wouldn’t that be great?

What are some of your musical influences?

My influence is more on the European kind of music, like House, Deep House, Tech House and Techno. (Editor’s note: Those are Mike’s favorite electronic music genres too.)

Is there any comparison between performing in front of people and racing?

Yes and no. When you are racing you don’t have contact with the public, but when you perform on stage you have that eye-to-eye contact with the crowd and you can tell whether they are happy or not. It’s a big responsibility, but when you connect with them and the vibe is great, it’s an awesome feeling. Every time I’m going to start a show I have butterflies, just like when I would start a race.

You started your open wheel career in the US in 1985 and drove in almost 200 IndyCar races. What are some of your favorite memories of your career?

My open wheel career started in 1980 when I went to race Formula Ford in England, then Formula 3 in 1981, and finally Formula 1 in 1982-82. My rookie year in IndyCar was 1985, and my first race was at the Indy 500 with Dick Simon, and I was fastest rookie qualifier. My three front row starts at Indy (In 1993-94, 200) were rewarding. In 1994 it was really rewarding the split the Penskes of Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, and 2002 was really special. I hadn’t driven an Indy car for a year and John Menard called me to replace PJ Jones, who had crashed on the Wednesday before qualifying. To put the car on the front row after just three days of practice was a great feeling. The pole position at Milwaukee after the disappointment of the result at Indy (in 1993) was awesome. I qualified a half-second ahead of the field. We ended up second to share the podium with Nigel Mansell and Fittipaldi, Mansell got us on a fuel strategy that paid off for him.

The best years of your career were with Dick Simon Racing from 1992-94, where you finished P9, P5 and P7 in the standings. What was it about the team at the time that made it so successful?

We had a good group of guys committed to win, we had good engineers and we had Duracell as a sponsor. We did a bit of development in the wind tunnel, which helped a lot, but remember we were still a small team against the big shots.

You had some nice success in the Indianapolis 500. Let’s talk about 1989 first. You were six laps down to Fittipaldi and Al Jr., but if they had BOTH wrecked in Turn 3, you could have won.  You ended up finishing P3, what are your thoughts of that day?

I was driving for the Doug Shierson / Domino’s Pizza Team, and we had a Lola chassis with a Judd engine. We had a good car, and during the race Doug was reminded me to be easy on  the throttle in Turns 1 and 3. The team did a good job on pit stops and strategy and we ran at the front, but if we won it would have been by luck.

Then, of course, there was 1993 where you started third but finished fourth after being penalized twice. You were very outspoken after that race, what has time done to your feelings about that race?

I was upset and disappointed. It was a series of mistakes by the officials and our team. We had a very fast car, I got the lead at the start and in 17 laps I was 17 seconds ahead. Then came the first yellow. Everybody made a pit stop, on the exit of the pits the officials say I passed Mario Andretti after the exit line. On my perception I did not, so, during the yellow I keep asking my team on the radio if I should stay in front or behind Mario, they were saying for me to stay in front because the officials confirmed more than once that was OK. The race restarted and after six laps the team called me in for a stop and go penalty. When I came out of the pits I was almost a lap down just in front of Mario, but after around the 450 miles I was leading the race again when the team call me for the last pit stop. I was entering the pits when a yellow came after my teammate Lyn St. James ran out of fuel on the race track. I stopped for fuel and tyres and I remember my team in the radio saying we were in the lead. After few laps they called me on the radio saying we had another penalty and need to go to the pits when we came to the green flag. This time I came out of the pits in 12th place, but in few laps I was 4th, behind Fittipaldi, Luyendyk and Mansell. I was driving like a maniac and the car was flying, a yellow came again and behind the pace car was the lagger Stephan Gregoire and the four of us. The pace car kept motioning Stephan to go around and he didn’t do it, then Fittipaldi, Luyendyk and Mansell overtook Gregoire. I came in the radio to my team asking if I should do the same, the answer was, don’t do it, they will be penalized because they can’t overtake a slow car during a yellow flag, and we already been penalized twice. Gregoire did not keep the pace, when the green light came I was almost a full front strait behind. Again I caught up the leaders, and around five or six laps to go, I remember Mansell touched the wall coming out of turn two. I ran out of time. Summing up, the officials did not penalize the big shots. I overtook the entire field twice, nobody overtook me during the race and I finished fourth. As the saying goes, everything happens for a reason, but it’s still hard to swallow. 

Of the 21 Indy 500s I’ve been to, 1993 is still my favorite, and I was definitely rooting for you. That may have been one of the more competitive races of that era. When you step back and just look at the entire race, what are your thoughts into how competitive the race was and the number of legendary drivers competing?

It was as a great race, with competitive drivers and teams. Other than the result, as a driver it was one of the best races I ever drove. The car was awesome and the team did great pit stops. Thanks Mike for cheering for me!!!

 Do you still follow the IndyCar series today? What do you think of the current level of competition?

Yes, when I can. On my racing days I used to wake up at 7 a.m., now as a deejay I’m going to bed at 7 a.m.! (laughing). I think the competition has improved the last few years, and the championship became strong again.

Are there any particular drivers you like to watch?

I’m rooting for the Brazilians, but last year wasn’t so good for them.

Outside of open wheel racing, you also won a world sportscar championship, won the 1988 Rolex 24 and finished second at LeMans. What are some of your memories of those experiences?

I am also proud of winning the Miami GP (Miami 2 Hour Race) in 1991. I was without a ride for the 1987 season, then open an opportunity to drive for Jaguar in the World Sports Car Championship, and I end up winning it. Last December I went to Paris to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the FIA, I’m very proud of it.  

Will we see you at IMS in May?

I am not sure of my plans for this year, but the last three years I have traveled from Miami to the Indy 500 on my motorcycle. We ride Miami straight to Indy, stop only to eat and gas. It takes me 20 hours, but it was a blast! Maybe I will do it again this year.

Photo Credit: IMS photo archives

Jimmie Johnson, IndyCar Driver?

With the weather being as nasty as it is in Austin, there hasn’t been a lot of on-track action today, and as of 3 p.m. Central time they had thrown the yellow and called it a day.

When days like these happen, the media goes into what my friends and I call “rain delay theatre”. That’s where you fill the time using everyone and everything necessary.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was on the grounds at COTA today, killing time between qualifying and the rest of the Daytona 500-related activities this weekend. Johnson joined the booth during the live feed of the test session and said he would be interested in driving “five or six” IndyCar races, most likely on road or street courses, when his Cup career comes to a close at the end of this year.

He later even added to his wish list when he was quoted telling IndyCar.com he’d also like to run the Rolex 24 again and give the 24 Hours of LeMans a try.

Lately we have heard of Cup drivers like Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson being interested in dipping their toes into open wheel racing while running the Indy 500, but honestly, I’m not really interested. They are still in the primes of their careers in stock cars — with Larson become a legend on dirt as well — and one-offs like that just don’t appeal to me.

If someone wants to try IndyCar, I want to see them immersed in it, which is why having Johnson run multiple events is intriguing to me. I’ve always wanted to see him try an open wheel car because I think he is a very cerebral driver who has a well above average racecraft. That actually makes him a perfect open wheel driver.

And, I’m a big Jimmie Johnson fan. It took me a while to warm up to him, but like everyone who has a long career in any sport, they toe the line for a while, then reach the “I don’t give a crap” phase where they say and act however they want. I grew to like “I don’t give a crap” JJ, just like I fully enjoy the IDGAP Dale Jr. Plus, I saw him sweep the two Daytona races in 2013, which was really cool.

Don’t forget, he’s already tried out an F1 car as part of his “ride swap” with Fernando Alonso at Abu Dhabi 16 months ago. Alonso said he was very impressed Johnson’s driving, and even then Johnson expressed his wish to drive an IndyCar.

If I had to pick five (or six) races I think he would do, here would be my list:

  • COTA. With a lot of room to work with (and screw up in), that might be a perfect starting point.
  • Long Beach. Johnson grew up in Southern California and attended the race several times.
  • Indy GP. Duh. While the GP is run on the road course, he has won the Brickyard 400 four times.
  • Detroit. One or both races as a nod to his longtime association with Chevrolet.
  • Monterey. See Long Beach. Given his success at Auto Club Speedway, he loves racing in California.

So the second question becomes, how would he fare? Despite his amazing success, I’d say if he were driving a handful of races over the course of several years, he’d become pretty good. But if it’s just for 2021, let’s temper our enthusiasm.

No knock on Jimmie, but he’d be competing against some of the best open wheel drivers on the planet, who have years of experience and technical knowledge. Johnson’s learning curve would be huge, and while he would straighten out that curve quicker than most people, he is, again, racing against guys like Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud.

Actually, his best bet to be super competitive would be on ovals, especially the Indy 500, but he has said he has no interest. I don’t blame him. He’s got a wife and two young daughters and, knock on wood, if he finishes this Cup season without a major incident he would have come out the other side of a 20-year stock car career with everything intact. He has more than earned the right to decide when, where, and in what kinds of cars he races.

Any guesses to where he would go? Of course, it would be a Chevy team, given his relationship with them. Tuesday at COTA he was a guest of Zak Brown and Arrow McLaren SP, so let’s start the speculation there!

He would be a good fit there if McLaren decided to expand to a third car next season. He could split the road/street courses with a driver who would do the rest of them as well as the ovals. A good setup with that, and with any team for that matter, would be with perhaps the Indy Lights champion and the funding they bring to the table.

One place I seriously doubt he would land would be Team Penske. They already have three capable drivers in place, and it appears that Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin is the next man up for that organization.

I don’t like talking about the business side of the sport, ROI, “eyeballs” or whatever since that’s way above my pay grade, but let’s just say having Jimmie Johnson driving IndyCars would be good for business too.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year or so. Hopefully it ends up with Johnson on an IndyCar grid in 2021.

McClaren, Hinch, Carlin Have Big Reveals

Happy Friday everyone! Just four more Fridays until we see cars on track at St. Pete.

Of course, we’ll be seeing cars on track at COTA next week for some Spring Training action. I was hoping to be there but things didn’t work out. But don’t worry, I’ll be in this space with my thoughts next week.

Ahead of that, we had a couple of reveals Friday morning. First, Arrow McLaren SP had their much-anticipated reveal, and I think the cars look great. They did a really good job of melding together the Arrow and McClaren colors into one dynamic package.

And what about the aeroscreens? Now that they are being integrated into the colors of the liveries, I think they look pretty awesome. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting a little more used to it, but the cars definitely have a little more of a fighter-jet look to them. You had to figure that IndyCar would get this right.

While the longtime fan in me is going to be a little sad that we can’t see the driver any longer, I also am all-in on driver safety, as I have blogged about before, which it appears that has been blown away from the internet forever. Oh well.

Not to mention, I love how the cars look and can’t wait to see them in person, especially at Indy.

While I was a bit critical of SPAM back in the fall, I think they are doing all the right things now. Hiring Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward was the first great move, putting two young drivers in those seats and building around them was exactly what I would’ve done if it were my team.

It’s so hard to win in IndyCar, and there are so many other strong teams in the paddock that I don’t know if this team can win this year, but they will in the next two years. McLaren didn’t really re-introduce themselves in a blaze of glory at Indy last year, but now they have had time to work on those issues, and they have a lot of great people from Arrow Schmidt Peterson on board.

The team still has a lot of work to do. On track, they have to prove that the idiocy that plagued McLaren last year has been handled. Off track, they have to continue working on building trust with the fans while building their fanbase.

It’s a lot of work, but so far in 2020 they have proven to be up to the task.

Also having a reveal was former SPAM employee James Hinchcliffe, who as the SPAM reveal was going on dropped his own cryptic reveal with the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted.

It’s actually a very slick video that shows Hinch pondering his future, running through the snow and working hard in the gym. As far as the presentation goes, I love it.

I’m a little confused on the timing, though. No doubt Hinch got hosed last fall, everyone knows that. He had a year left on his contract, and time proved that the one-season drive with a Chevy motor was not going to have a big impact on his Honda Canada deal.

Only the parties involved know just what went down and what was said, but the video seems a bit of an “eff-you”, and was meant as a way to take away from the SPAM reveal. What’s unfortunate to me is that guy like Hinch has always proven to be above that sort of thing.

I think he and his team have had a couple of PR mis-steps over the last few months — remember the “Challenge Accepted” merch they started selling last fall (?) — but what has saved him is that he’s worked his goodwill and popularity to the point where he is shielded from criticism, and people took his side when everything went down.

Don’t get me wrong I am actually a big Hinch fan, he’s one of my favorite drivers, and my criticisms come from a place of love. But business is business, and someone being salty after scoring one win, three podiums and finishing 10th and 12th in points the last two years should expect his performance to be called into question.

How it went down was shitty, but why it went down can be up to debate.

Besides, I feel the best way towards redemption is to get it done and beat them on the track. Hey, I once went through a nasty divorce, and I actually became a much happier person after I put all of that behind me and focused forward. He should do the same.

Always remember, it’s never good to burn bridges, but revenge is a dish best served cold.

Carlin, Chilton back in 2020

Just as I was about to hit send on this post, Carlin Racing announced that they and driver Max Chilton would be back for all 12 road/street races, plus the Indy 500. Of course, sponsor Gallagher will be returning as well.

A driver for the No. 59 Chevy for the remaining oval races will be announced later.

Carlin definitely took it down to the wire with this one. All full-time teams are required to be at the COTA test next week, so getting this done the Friday before cut it a bit close. Still, you had to figure it was coming. There was no way Carlin would sit out the season, and Chilton brings the backing to make all of this happen.

Chilton returns to the grid after a disappointing season that saw him fail to qualify for the Indy 500 and not record a Top 10 in his 12 races. He and Carlin are entering their third year together, so hopefully for both parties involved they race much better this year.

If they are naming another driver for the remainder of the ovals this season, could a second Carlin car at Indy be in the works? I mean, I bet it would be hard to tell a driver “yeah, you can run Texas, Richmond, Iowa and Gateway for us, but Indy? Yeah, sorry about that”. You have to think that a ride at Indy would be part of the oval driver’s package.

So let’s add that one to our tentative car count for Indy, shall we?

Photo credit: Arrow McLaren SP Website