Into The Crystal Ball – The Beautiful Facility Edition

crystal ballSunday will mark the fifth time the Verizon IndyCar Series descends upon the quiet, green hills of central Alabama and the beautifully manicured grounds of Barber Motorsports Park. The purpose built motorcycle track has found an unlikely partner with indycar as their connections continue to grow year on year. Spring training, record crowds and fast paced, close quarters action have solidified Barber into a fan favorite and a treasured early spring pilgrimage for local residents. Barber catches too much flak for being processional, but we have a partner in Barber and title sponsor Honda uses the weekend to entertain local Honda plant employees. Plus, the action is actually quite good with the DW12.

Five Things to Watch

Race Control – Boys have at it?! I’m not sure I think this is the best route of action for an open-wheeled series, bumpers or not. Since Long Beach, many drivers have been on record stating that they are not sure what they can and cannot do in the eyes of race control. It’s odd, after a year of relative silence in the media and an entire season of mostly good and sane decision from race control, we find ourselves back in the bad old days. I understand the want of race control to stay hands off, but why now? Drivers don’t have the same respect for each other as they did decades ago, they need a birdie on their shoulder to remind them what is ok and not. The quick and violent shift in race control ideology will be very interesting to watch through finger covered eyes.

Hot Heads – Post race interviews after the green fell in Long Beach were… passionate. Drivers were angry, respect was lost and gauntlets were thrown. By all reports, the drivers have made amends and are ready to play nice this weekend at Barber. I’m not so convinced; these are race drivers we are talking about. As soon as the visor is closed and they catch up to a guy who did them wrong in Long Beach, I imagine those hand holding campfire sing-alongs will be quickly thrown aside. Race drivers don’t forget, and I really don’t think they forgive; there are more ways to ruin a driver’s day than simply showing the chrome horn.

Turn Five – And all of that leads us to one of the only and really the best passing opportunity on the twistie circuit: turn five. Barber is punctuated by medium to high speed corners connected by relatively short straights. Even the 8/9 chicane is extremely high speed considering the configuration of the turn. There is no doubt that drivers will attempt passes in literally every other corner on the track, but turn five will give drivers the best chance to cleanly and successfully complete an overtake. The action will be non-stop all day long. When I finally get out to Barber, I know where I will be spending the majority of my time.

Will Power – Given the absence of Power’s mortal on-track enemy, the year could not have gone better for the Aussie. My biggest fear for Will Power’s 2014 strength was the addition of Juan Pablo; a driver with speed in hand hanging out in Power’s own backyard. That speed has not materialized for JPM as of yet, so Power needs to take this gift and pack on the points before JPM gets up to speed. Considering the Colombians increase in pace between St. Pete and Long Beach, Power is going to have to rack up as many points on Sunday as possible. It could be one of the last weekends where he is untroubled by Montoya.

Scott Dixon – In the four times indycar has visited the rolling hill of Barber Motorsports Park, Scott Dixon has never finished better than P2, he has also never finished worse. If there is a better four race streak at a given facility in any of indycar history, I am unaware of it. Scott Dixon… Mr. Consistency. I’m not saying that he needs a P2 or better finish to be in for a chance at the championship, but slow starts have always been Dixon’s Achilles heel. Although he has finished both races this year in a respectable position, a nice change for sure, with Power’s momentum a P2 or better finish will be nearly a must.

Predictions

Pole – Helio Castroneves – HC does very well at Barber, never starting or finishing outside the top ten, and has the ability to beat Power over the course of a single lap here.

Winner – Scott Dixon – 50/50 chance of finishing either first, or last. That sounds about right after four years of being first loser. I’ll take the win this week.

Epic Performance – Juan Pablo Montoya – Two top fives in a row would be an amazing feat, but not unexpected on his journey back to the front.

Biggest Loser – Graham Rahal – Beat by his part-time teammate? Check. Squandering one of the most coveted sponsorships in the league? Check. Languishing out of the top 15 most of the day? Check. Dismal future based on past performances? Check. Come on Graham, get it together.

The season is still early and everyone is trying to settle in for the fierce championship battle. This will be the last relaxed race weekend before the summer grind starts early with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Late season championship success is very dependent on putting in three or four good races before The 500. Indycar is at such a competitive level that it is nearly impossible to fight from the back of the pack for the final run of the season. Barber only lets the strongest competitors into victory lane and Sunday will be no different.

Eric Hall

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Thanks for 3 Years, Now Win My Stuff

Three years and four days ago I posted my first article on this hole-in-the-wall-sorry-excuse-for-a-fake-indycar-blog blog with bewilderment about what could eventually happen once I pressed “upload” that faithful day.

My original mission objectives were simple: start a new hobby, become a better writer, put more indycar stuff out there and simply share my fanatical addiction with the world. I have had varying degrees of success in all of those endeavors, but I really just found surprise enjoyment out of writing.

Writing was never my strong suit, and still is not, but some of you guys seem to enjoy the odd commentary and content I have somehow continued to write. Being nearly 200,000 words in and with over 185 posts under my belt, I felt it was as good a time as ever to say thanks to everyone who has read, commented and supported this tiny little alcove of craziness.

Thank you.

Now, onto the good stuff. 99 percent of my long term readers are also twitter users, so I have decided to harness the awesome power that is twitter to give back to the indycar crowd.

Living in Indianapolis, there is a lot of indycar merchandise floating around and I have managed to over-acquire a huge amount of swag at no cost. All of this stuff is new and unused and has been stored well enough to not even know some of the items are nearly ten years old!

Sometime tomorrow afternoon (4/23/14) I’ll do an initial “retweet to enter” with a link to this article so you can browse the wonderful prizes available. I will pick a random retweeter that will get mailed one of the stupendous prizes OF YOUR CHOICE listed below.

After the initial giveaway the rules change slightly. Starting with follower 700 (currently at 673), I will send a new tweet and give away another prize and will continue to do so with every 50 new followers; same retweet to enter rules apply.

There are 15+ prizes currently available with more surely to be added in the future. I realize this giveaway could literally continue for years, BUT WHY NOT?? Shipping a hat is cheap and you guys rock my face off.

If you are a long time reader not on twitter, you’ll just have to keep an eye on the feed to the right and shoot me an email when it is time to enter.

Prizes:

11 black IndyCar mesh hats

4 DirectTV unbranded hats

1 Belle Isle Grand Prix hat

1 Road to Indy Oval Champions hat

1 Verizon Team Penske #12 hat

1 2008 Texas Motor Speedway Champions hat

1 womens medium IRL shirt (the silver is glittery and it looks smaller than a medium)

1 prize pack with 5 2009 fridge magnet schedules, an IndyPro series button, a 2006 TMS koozie and an Indycar pencil.

Good luck, and thank you for reading, commenting and sharing.

Eric Hall

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The Weekend Rewind – How Safe Is Safe Edition

Was it a normal weekend at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, or a dry run for Toronto and Houston? Yes. For a while it seemed like the drivers would be able to control themselves. Sure, we saw Rahal, Power, Dixon and Aleshin all unceremoniously dump their competitors, but the damage was minimal and could be attributed to simple street track racing. The utter mess and destruction that Mike Conway had to drive through on lap 56 en route to his third career win was something totally different.

There aren’t five reactions this week, but I think was follows needs to be said and made first priority for the series. I don’t make that statement very often because I don’t have any idea how to run a professional open-wheel series, but I do know when I feel like things are starting to get just too sketchy.

So we know Ryan Hunter-Reay has taken mostly full responsibility for driving without a brain. Not that it makes his ridiculous action OK; even to the point where the other drivers involved wanted to hear no such excuse. Plain and simple, that was old school IRL IR07 driving. I’ve stated before that I don’t think RHR lives up to the hype, and his championship was more of a fluke than an implication of skill, but my real worry lies with the secondary contact from drivers screaming into an accident site.

Before we move into the real discussion, I have to ask: why did Ryan Hunter-Reay roll so far after his impact? I would like to assume that the braking system was ripped open and a massive loss of brake fluid ensued. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the case as his car did not look like it rolled to a stop once Helio Castroneves hit him.

I feel like he was hoping to grab a gear and limp back to the pits before Helio Castroneves smashed into him. I’m torn on whether to string up RHR for not standing on the brakes after initial contact, but I don’t like the idea of adding extra chassis to the junk pile because someone hoped they could get back home for repairs.

That’s all fine and dandy, but there could be bigger issues at hand with the marshalling of the incident. Where were the flags before the corner, and how quickly did the corner workers react? I sensed that maybe the Turn 4 marshal station may not have been able to see the incident because it was so far into the exit of Turn 4. I also wonder what kind of training do the corner marshals receive before the action kicks off on Friday morning. Are the tracks and promoters doing enough to make sure the corner workers are qualified and properly trained for the high speed machines seen during an IndyCar weekend?

After the first impact, cars continued to pile into the three disabled drivers for 12 seconds. A single car adding to an accident that was following the drivers in question is not ideal, but understandable. 12 full seconds of additional impacts is totally unacceptable. In that 12 seconds, the waving yellow flag should have been passed through the various marshalling station all the way back into Turn 1, but on Sunday that was clearly not the case.

One final concern was the length of time it took the safety truck, which was stationed at Turn 4, to address the accident. It was almost exactly one minute from initial contact before the truck was on-site. Granted, given the fact that there were secondary and tertiary impacts from inattentive drivers, a slight delay was expected. However, it was still 40 seconds from when the field was under control through the corner in question and the safety truck arrived. In the high stakes game of IndyCar racing, 40 seconds is just not good enough. The delay was especially disappointing given the fact that the safety truck was stationed so close and in line-of-site with the incident.

The Holmatro Safety Team is undoubtedly the best in the business, but I wonder if the delay, something that has not been too uncommon in recent years, is because the safety truck drivers are worried about the race being neutralized in a timely manner. After all, it’s far worse for a driver to careen into a safety truck attending to an accident than for them to hit another disable racecar.

Jack Hawksworth, a late comer to the accident, rear-ended the disabled car of Josef Newgarden and submarined under the gearbox. Thankfully, Hawksworth didn’t disappear too far under Newgarden’s car and climbed out unscathed. But the results could have been much worse, and that 40 extra seconds of response time could be the difference between life and death.

The decline of every day safety in IndyCar has been on a slow but steady decline for years. From slower and slower response times, to jewelry being worn under fire suits, to crew members not wearing helmets during testing while on a hot pit lane, the slippage has been noticeable.

In an era where the chassis, fire suits and helmets are safer than they have ever been, it has been scary and disappointing to watch every day safety slowly slip off of the radar. The series may not be able to force promoters and facilities to upgrade their safety hardware, but they surely have a mountain of small nagging issues that if left unchecked, could really add up one day.

With all of that said, it was still an exciting race. There was passing up and down the field all day long. Every camera shot at every corner had at least one guy taking an inside look and there was more two by two passing than I can remember at any similar super confined street circuit. And honestly, the guys did a great job considering the type of facility they were asked to compete at. However, the drivers were still hot after the checkers fell, and for good reason. Racing in those confines is extremely stressful; luckily for them, but unlucky for us, they have two weeks to figure it out and reset for Barber.

Eric Hall

P.S. I’ve been busy for Pit Lane Reporter again. Want a straight-up newsy view of Long Beach? Head here. How about getting your hands on Issue 2 of Pit Lane Reporter Magazine? Here’s the goods. The IndyCar business starts on page 9 and continues on page 33.

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Unfiltered Race Notes – Long Beach 2014

Note for the notes: I write something like this for every race, but never really released these to the public. More content is always fun so I thought it would be a good time to start posting these. Not totally sure why this has never happened before. Let me know if you want to see more!

This is pure anotherindycarblog stream of consciousness thought written while the race was happening… On an Ipad… With a tiny keyboard… it keeps my thoughts short and easy to digest later. So you get all the partial thoughts, spelling mistakes and tiny out of place nuggets with no time reference.

Remember, these are supposed to be fun. Take what is written with a grain of salt. This is a long unfiltered stream of snap judgments and knee-jerk reactions. I only denote laps when I remember to look and describing this as linear would be an overstatement. These eventually fuel my “IndyCar Rewind” articles and anything in “Pit Lane Reporter” that reviews previous action. Enjoy!

***pre race***

Very honest comments from will power. he makes it feel like he is looking at IndyCar from a different point of view. I’m not convinced because I’ve heard this story before

Seabass sounds like he thinks he’s going to beast the standing start. only chevy in top 6.

Does Josef Newgarden need to buckle down? i know the fun is… fun, but is his head in the game enough? Sarah Fisher is a Boss.

The Verizon and IndyCar “Driving Technology” commercial is awesome and i think it would work well on any broadcast and channel, not just races.

Jack Hawsworth… well spoken, but nothing special.

Pagenaud, Montoya, Sato – I love they mentioned them

Miller and Dario at the car show. Looks pretty cool.

Sam Posey intro… absolutely amazing. there is something special about Posey’s voice over a well cut and tracked montage.

Umm… PT looks too big to even think about sitting in an IndyCar, but the track lap with Townsed Bell was well done. PT and Bell play very well against each other. Did Tracey really pull the wrestlers mask out? The blue demon mentions the blue mist. cute PT… cute.

Also, PT looks embarrassedly sunburnt.

Crowd Looks very good on the front straight for opening ceremonies. Pit lane looks easily as packed as Indy.

***Race***

Al Unser JR looked super pumped to give the command and i really like how the cars are staged on pit lane in a Le Mans style set up. cool for the crowd.

Interesting that Kimball has 270° one way in his steering compared to 180° with Will power

Love the driver facing on-boards.

Arie spun the two-seater. Can’t buy that kind of ride.

The decision of RHR to start from the left may have been very good for Hinch. he starts in what would have been P3 box. an extra half grid spot to the paint on S/F line.

beautiful start

Aries spin cost us a lap. Lame.

Montoya looks good. first time we’ve really seen him. Castroneves does not.

Still wish they would let us know whos radio we are hearing.

Bell calls the 2014 sportscars ALMS err IMSA

Through the field on lap 10

JPM biggest mover by lap 15. five positions

electric problems for Briscoe

Power and Helio knife fighting… hope helio comes out on top.

Marco rocking a broken wing. upper left front element.

I see old marco is back. over cooking the entrance of corners and driving with no patience.

lap 25

Bourdais into the tires on cold tires. bourdais always crushes my hopes for him. Hard to be a fan

PT giving Seabass props for driving like a stud back in the day

power punts pagenaud exactly like franchitti used to dump power.

orange cone goes flying into the hairpin

rahal turns wilson before the green even comes out. come on! I hope Wilson wasn’t leaving a gap, but this was moments after Rahal “let wilson know he was there”

Lap 35

looks like JPM went off strategy. Either by accident or design, i bet his race is cooked.

Bourdais penalty. insult to injury.

The streets look pretty damn smooth. probably the nicest “street surface” along side St. Petersburg

Love how they always qualify Kimball’s “first diabetic IndyCar driver” with “licensed”

and Bourdais into the tires again. Come on man, this is ridiculous. It looks like a carbon copy of the previous crash, I hope the cars broken and not Bourdais’s skill. (the lie of a fool)

Kimball Blowed up. Chevy. Big smokey blowup.

Lap 42

Rahal gets drive through for Wilson incident. Excellent. Graham thinks it’s terrible and believes it’s the definition of incidental contact, says he was hit too. Yea Graham, but you were never pointed the wrong way because of it.

I’m watching this on a new TV, and Kimball’s car is ORANGE, but RHR’s car is the wrong shade of YELLOW

restarts look really good today

The banking of shoreline drive translates very well to TV this year. Maybe I’m just more receptive of it because of all the talk of rolling down it during the standing starts.

through the field again on lap 46

Looks like RHR may be holding up Newgarden and Hinch

talk of two-stopping because of yellows. should be illegal to even discuss fuel savings

Conway has been giving people trouble all day long. excited to see what the ECR crew can do with him later in the year with more time together.

everyone feels settled in. probably trying to save fuel in hopes of a late race yellow. I bet it would only take one to let a few guys go the distance.

Nothing better than seeing Rahal lose a position.

Lap 50

dude, where are the yellow flags?!? How is it possible for TK, Sato and Hawksworth to still be running full chat into the crash? and with Josef’s car sitting on Hawk, the safety team took a bit too long to get to a submarined car.

Pretty questionable move on RHR’s part. Not sure if he was in the wrong, but this is exactly why I don’t quite believe in RHR even with his championship. Front wheel to real wheel contact with *just* a nose inside is not an ideal situation.

Michael Andretti sounds pretty disappointed as well about the whole shebang. Says more patience is needed. Looked pretty similar to your own move on Emmo when you put him into the run off Michael… I’m just saying.

Saavedera driving with a possible broken finger due to debris impact? The level of epicness will be determined once the result of said broken bone is decided.

TK blames the two guys for wrecking on cold tires. did you see the flags? are there flags warning you of trouble? could this implicate deeper flagging issues within the series?

OK, Josef definitely has his head in the game. Rough luck for him.

Lap 74

LOTS of moves before the line! PT is correct in saying the green wasn’t out yet before the cars popped out of line

everyone should be good to go until the end.

Dixon moves over on wilson, clear as day. bent suspension for Justin

Could Conway actually get this win?

Andretti with an EPIC move around Servia and Pagenaud with a little help with turning from Aleshin

Power weaving… shocking

aaaand andretti in with a broken nose

Conway shouldn’t be too far behind, that wing is looking bad.

Rahal stalls, better and better all day for the guy.

Conway, The Destroyer of Worlds

RHR pretty classy in taking most of the responsibility for the incident. Big man. down to simply making the move for the lead, should have waited. class act, just more talk than talent.

Lap 80

Ten lap trophy dash

JPM back to p5

Power on reds, I don’t think they’re going to last the entire run.

also, why did RHR’s car roll back into the track? was he not on the brakes? I cant imagine he totally lost braking ability. amateur hour

Great camera angle leading onto the back straight

surprised power has held on as long as he has on the reds.

Lap 86

Dixon is short

Ed is a cool cat. Conway at the front, not a bead of sweat.

Conway. Boom

Checkers

Why is power always so dejected sounding? I’m so sorry you’re a racecar driver.

JPM says he saw yellow flags, still doesn’t feel 100%. Reds are still kind of mysterious for him. If he can go from 15 to 4th and not be 100% the field should seriously be worried.

Pagenaud has some very strong words for Power. Pags seems hot, I hope he puts power into the tires later in the year. A few drivers had some pointed opinions of Power after the race. Shocker. Again

Pretty cool seeing the right front of Rahal catch on fire. Nice to know the brakes perform that well, I knew we used brake fans, but that was a good demonstration.

Good race if not a bit sloppy

So there we go. This is just an experiment for this week so let me know if you want to see more of these throughout the season. And as always, thanks for reading!

Eric Hall

 

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Into the Crystal Ball… Wish I Was in Long Beach Edition

crystal ballIndyCar descends onto the Streets of Long Beach for the 40th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach this weekend. However, INDYCAR can only claim five appearances at the storied street circuit, 25 rounds were sanctioned by CART/ChampCar, 8 by Formula one and the inaugural edition was a Formula 5000 race overseen by SCCA/USAC. A checkered history indeed, but the current iteration of IndyCar has found an amazing home in Long Beach, California with the local government granting the series a vote of confidence by proposing a three year extension with IndyCar through 2018. Great news for an even better race and with any luck, enough time for indycar to grow and secure its long term future. But first, the 40th edition needs to be run!

Five Things to Watch

Attachments – The barrier lined street circuit is one of the most challenging venues IndyCar visits all year. The low grip surface makes for tougher handling and a slimmer window to make a mistake in. What is the reward for a driver only slightly overstepping their skill at Long Beach? Usually a trip into the concrete wall as there aren’t very many areas with an appreciable amount of runoff. If a driver has even a momentary flash of fear about stuffing the car into the wall they will have no pace at all. It takes an out of body experience while eschewing any concept of self-preservation to capture the checkers at Long Beach.

Yellow Flags – Given the amount of concrete, one can only assume there will be more than a few smashed racecars smoldering in the garage by the time said checker flag waves. The real question will be: how many times will the field see a full course caution? Will there be any use of local yellows at all? Can you even use local yellows at Long Beach? How many times will the track become blocked? Will there be a left over ramp from Stadium Super Trucks to allow the drivers to jump over the track blockage? Could that be the answer to preventing full course cautions?

Restarts – Assuming that Robby Gordon took all of his spiffy ramps with him, we can infer that there will be at least one restart on Sunday afternoon. In St Pete, the field was clearly not prepared for how the new single file restart procedures would alter what an IndyCar restart would look like. Slower speeds and tighter alignments caused havoc in a few very different ways two weeks ago and the drivers will have to adjust their timing and expectations of how the restarts should go. Hopefully we won’t see a similar situation with overeager drivers running over each other. Personally, I like the idea of slower and closer restarts and I hope we can see at least one well executed by the drivers on Sunday.

Standing Start – I know the series unveiled standing starts last year, but they still feel so new and cool. Again, I’m very very excited to see the boys of IndyCar try their hand at something totally out of the ordinary for American racing without a hint of gimmick. INDYCAR has moved to a European style starting lights system with five horizontal lights. This only adds to the international legitimacy of IndyCar racing and brings something to America that is almost never seen. I know standing starts will feel like just another part of the series eventually, but for right now I’m still appreciating the sheer awesomeness of 20 plus race machines sprinting from a standstill.

Carlos Munoz – Honestly, I expected much more out of the Andretti Autosport rookie in St. Pete. Much, much more. The young Colombian only outpaced rookie countryman Carlos Huertas by a single position and was thoroughly trounced by Mikhail Aleshin. AA has a very good handle on the Long Beach street circuit and should provide Munoz with a solid platform to gain more confidence on the twistie tracks. The guy has a proven track record with Indy Lights wins at a wide range of tracks including Long Beach itself. Carlos showed well in St. Pete qualifying, but lost the plot during the race. I’ll definitely be watching for the green and yellow number 34 fighting through the field.

 

Predictions

Pole – Takuma Sato – I got a little cocky with my previous pick and if it wasn’t Taku that proved me wrong immediately. Touché Mr. Sato, touché.

Winner – Mike Conway – The guy really knows how to get around Long Beach and showed last week he and ECR can get the car up front and stay there.

Epic Performance – Graham Rahal – The addition of Servia will do more for the team than any amount of cash could. Look for Rahal to be just ok… aka: super-awesomely-good-considering-the-team-and-driver.

Biggest Loser – Jack Hawksworth – The British rookie will continue his struggles of two weeks ago. A rookie driver, a financially questionable team, silly crash damage from round one; none of this instills confidence in me.

Round two is locked and loaded in sunny southern California (sunny and southern again, I need to get to an early season race one of these years…) and the points table isn’t too jumbled yet. The usual suspects are present and accounted for, but the weekend in the LBC has been known to produce some interesting results all the way through the field. It’s fitting that we visit the most famous and successful street race in the US so early in the season. St. Pete is like a nice and soft wake-up only for the IndyCar party to kick into high gear in Long Beach just two short weeks later. The first of two consecutive natural terrain road courses of the season are on tap next for the, seriously, most versatile series in the world.

Eric Hall

PS: Juan Pablo Montoya.

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2014 IndyCar Season Preview (Pit Lane Reporter)

(NOTE: This post originally appeared in issue one of “Pit Lane Reporteron 3/16/2014. My writing at PLR will all be archived here to keep my work compiled in a single location one month after originally appearing on/in PLR website and magazine. Didn’t download the first issue? Shame on you! Stay tuned for details about issue two next week.)

A frozen winter in North America and an unusually busy offseason for driver moves have punctuated the five months since the IndyCar paddock took the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway and Scott Dixon was crowned series champion. Teams have been engaged in preseason testing since January at a multitude of warm weather locations including Sebring International Raceway Short Course, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. In the midst of all the action, homeless drivers have been vying for the quickly shrinking pool of open seats.

The transition from 2013 to 2014 in IndyCar has been a relatively smooth one considering we are talking about open-wheel racing. INDYCAR and newly appointed CEO Mark Miles looked to streamline what had historically been a family run business lacking the acumen to consistently fortify the series’ place in the US and global motorsport world. Jay Frye as Chief Revenue Officer and CJ O’Donnell as Chief Marketing Officer and Mike Kitchel as Communication Director have been welcome additions as all three men bring a wealth of knowledge and history in the sports and motorsport world.

On-track, the largest change will undoubtedly be the transition of Honda from a single-turbo engine layout to a twin-turbo system. The change was to be series mandated as technical officials have had difficulties balancing the single system from Honda and twin system from Chevrolet, however Honda had plans for the switch anyway and was well into development when the rule change was announced.

Honda had lagged behind Chevy in a few key areas in 2012 and 2013 and the change to a twin-turbo layout was more of a competitive decision to stay on par with Chevy. Honda had made sacrifices the last two years in drivability and fuel economy to stay in the same range of horsepower as Chevy. By the end of 2013, Honda had made huge strides in containing the power of the bowtie brigade. The move to twin-turbos could give Honda a decisive advantage considering all the work they have done on engine drivability and power delivery on their tricky single-turbo unit.

After two years of development, the 2.2 liter direct injected turbo motors are purportedly making in the neighborhood of 725 horsepower while in road trim. This could be as much as 50 more than when the power plants debuted in 2012; a considerable increase in the heavily homologated engine formula with few windows for upgrades. And with two years of aero development in the bag, 2014 should see speeds increase at nearly all tracks, a trend continued from 2013.

Adding to the tangled web of engine talk, Chip Ganassi racing has swapped manufacturer during the offseason. The championship contending team has opted to go with Chevy for 2014 after perceived lack of commitment from Honda soured Ganassi on the partnership. Andretti Autosport went the other way, choosing to represent long-time partner Honda for the 2014 season.

The Grand Prix of Baltimore was unfortunately axed from the schedule because IndyCar and the city of Baltimore were unable to find a suitable date to hold the event. A future revival of the grand prix does not look to be an option for either party. IndyCar also lost the Sao Paulo Indy 300 due to the promoter backing out of the contract forcing the series to look elsewhere in Brazil for a possible return to the country sometime in the future.

Although two fan favorite races have been lost from the schedule, a new road course event has been added at the newly reconfigured Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix Course. The race will take place on what is traditionally opening weekend for the Indianapolis 500; the crown jewel of the series held on the famous oval during Memorial Day weekend.

The Indianapolis Grand Prix will complement the three returning double header weekends. Detroit, Houston and Toronto will host two full distance, full points paying races; one Saturday and one Sunday. Each double header weekend poses a true test of endurance and fortitude of the teams and drivers. Surviving race one intact and unscathed as to be in a strong position for race two is imperative to a successful championship push.

Also returning for 2014 will be the Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Triple Crown. A traditional sub-championship awarded to the winner of three 500 mile races; the Triple Crown will include the 500 mile oval races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pocono Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. A 1,000,000 USD payout is the prize if a driver can see the checkered flag first at all three events.

For 2014, the IndyCar paddock is missing a few familiar faces, but it is also home to new and returning drivers looking to make their mark on IndyCar racing. Dario Franchitti’s retirement following his high-flying impact with the Houston catchfence and ensuing concussion and bone injuries was a shock to most of us. But unlike many of the drivers that came before him, Dario was able to retire in person and will continue to be involved in some capacity with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Also Absent from the 2014 paddock is Simona de Silvestro who left KV Racing Technologies to become an “affiliated driver” with Sauber F1 Team. What this means for the young Swiss driver’s career is still to be seen. Simona’s 2013 teammate and 2013 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan has also left KVRT, but to fill the #10 seat left by Dario. 2013 Dragon Racing teammates Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra have both departed Dragon to fill the two KVRT seats leaving Dragon with no drivers and no current plans for the 2014 season.

Tony Kanaan will be joining current Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Charlie Kimball and 2013 series champion Scott Dixon along with Ryan Briscoe. Returning from a 2013 season of sports car racing, Briscoe parlayed his 2013 Indy 500 drive for the team into a full season charge. Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Will Power will be joined by Juan Pablo Montoya who returns to American open-wheel racing after a 13 year absence.

Largely unchanged for the 2014 season is Andretti Autosport as the team welcomes back its trio of North American drivers. James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay will be joined by rookie Carlos Munoz who drove for the team to dramatic effect at Indianapolis and Auto Club in 2013. The surprise driver signing of the year award goes to Andretti Autosport who inked a deal to run NASCAR driver Kurt Busch at the Indy 500.

Mikhail Aleshin, the second full season rookie competing in 2014, will team with veteran Simon Pagenaud at Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. This will be the second rookie stablemate Simon has taught in as many years. The team will also be home to Jacques Villeneuve for the Indy 500. Villeneuve, 1995 Indy 500 winner, 1995 CART champion and 1997 F1 World Champion, will be an interesting addition to the team and series this May by continuing the tradition of drivers in the twilight of their career coming to, or back to, Indy.

Single car operation AJ Foyt Enterprises welcomes back Takuma Sato for another year. The team will also have Martin Plowman making his IndyCar debut with them for both Indianapolis rounds. Ed Carpenter will take the wheel of his namesake team’s machine for the oval rounds, while sometimes IndyCar ace Mike Conway will take the honors of wheeling for the team on the remaining road and street courses.

Dale Coyne Racing and Justin Wilson will attempt to take on the big dogs for yet another year. Coyne’s second seat has always been a sort of enigma with late driver signings the norm; expect this seat to be filled for a second full season entry from the team by St. Petersburg weekend. Bryan Herta Autosport has enlisted the services of Mazda Road to Indy veteran Jack Hawksworth who has already been testing with the team at Sebring. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has signed up Joseph Newgarden to contest the championship for the third consecutive year with the team.

The National Guard sponsorship was transferred from Panther Racing to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing during the offseason. The move not only secured Graham Rahal’s future with his father’s team, but it has also allowed the team to sign Orial Servia for at least four rounds this season. Losing this sponsorship has brought Panther Racings’ already unstable future into question. The team has done preseason testing with Carlos Huertas, but is currently tangled in a legal battle with RLLR, INDYCAR and the National Guard regarding the sponsorship transfer. The teams’ chances of securing a full season entry look very slim.

There should be between 22 and 24 cars on the grid for the season opening race in St. Petersburg. But the question at the start of most recent seasons has been: How does the series make it to the historic car count of 33 for the Indianapolis 500? First, the bulk of the balance will be made up by “Indy only” entrants from full season teams. Busch, Plowman and Villeneuve have already signed to such programs. Look for Townsend Bell, Buddy Lazier and Conor Daly to ink Indy only deals as well.

And there are a few Indy only teams that will most likely make an appearance as well. If Panther Racing or Dragon Racing miss the full season, they will almost certainly still attempt the 500. Dreyer & Reinbolt Racing, once a full season entrant, will also do their best to be back in May. A new and unknown Cutters Racing Team is also looking to crowd source the funding for an Indy 500 attempt.

Team Penske could be the team to beat in 2014 with Target Chip Ganassi very close behind. Helio Castroneves is chasing his elusive first championship to compliment his three Indy 500 wins and Will Power looking to finally clinch a championship in the absence of arch-rival Dario Franchitti. With the driver and engine shake-up at TCGR, the addition of Montoya to an already driven Team Penske and the slightly inconsistent Andretti Autosport, Penske looks primed to capture its first championship since 2006, an eternity for Team Penske.

However, IndyCar is not defined by the big teams. Simon Pagenaud won two races in 2013 and his team has coalesced to become one of the best teams on a budget in the paddock. A championship is not out of the question for the small operation. The move by Sebastien Bourdais, 4 time ChampCar series champion, to KVRT thus freeing himself from Dragon Racing may be the best career decision he has made since returning to the paddock in 2011. Finally, the cash infusion received by RLLR and Rahal may very well propel them into the realm serious contenders. Only time will tell how they use the new resources.

The championship is wide open in 2014 with as many as 15 drivers possessing the skill to take a win on any given week. A podium finish at sometime during the year will be within the grasp of every single driver taking the green flag. Pound for pound, IndyCar has some of the tightest competition in the motorsports world and the series’ history of nail biting races and championship finishes is prepped to deliver again in 2014.

Eric Hall

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The Weekend Rewind… Sunny Florida Edition

(Note: For 2014, I’m going to turn over a new leaf during these race reviews. Usually, you won’t read much about the drivers’ actual race performance on these pages. It would take exceptional situations for me to devote much space to any one driver (the return of JPM for example). However, after looking at some of the awesome post-race resources provided by INDYCAR (I get them from the MoreFrontWing.com event summaries page) and the post-race press releases (provided by TrackSideOnline.com along with awesome insider content for 22 bucks a year) I think it’s about time I at least try to talk about the drivers in a non-technical way )

Race one in the bag, and Will Power leads the points. How am I not surprised? It’s not that I don’t like Mr. Power, I just love rooting against him even more. Everyone needs a bad guy, and it is even sweeter when your bad guy runs up front. I love seeing him squirm under the championship pressure and I’m glad he could build some confidence early in the season because he’s going to need it! The major players were in attendance and did not waste a second in continuing the battle from 2014. Some years it feels like St. Pete is kind of a warm-up for the season, but on Sunday it felt like the entire paddock was more than ready to race once the green flag fell.

Reactions

THE Restart – Simple, not Will Powers fault. From the moment it happened, I saw the rear of the field assuming the leader was going to gas it out of the last corner to take the green. However, under the directive of race control, pace car driver Johnny Rutherford entered the front straight at reduced speed and pulled into pit lane at a later spot on the track than in 2013. Power followed suit and the first few guys (read: the experienced end of the grid) did as well. It was the rush to pack up in the rear of the field that ultimately caused the crash. Do you think, as a Roger Penske employee, Will Power would really brake-check a teammate?! That’s just irresponsible. Believe me, I’m the first one to try to find a reason to throw Power under the bus. This time he’s in the clear.

Montoya – OK, I think I can objectively look at JPM now that he, and I, have a race under our belts. To be fair, street racing is probably the hardest of the three disciplines of indycar racing to just jump into. Dealing with a low grip surface, constantly changing track conditions and the total lack of runoff room poses unique challenges to drivers that choose to kick-off their indycar career on the streets. Will JPM win a race or five this year? Yes. Will it come before Indy? Barber… Maybe, but probably not until after Detroit. Power looks super focused this year and could pose a huge road block to Montoya in his quest for victory lane. Juan Montoya Juan Pablo Montoya will take time to adjust. Honestly, I’m very glad he finished P15. Imagine the “NASCAR taught Juan how to race!” if he took the win.

Aleshin – The young Russian had quite the interesting day while still managing to finish P12 while making five non-penalty induced trips down pit lane. Mikhail lost five spots on the first ever flying start of his career five positions and placing him in a long fight at the tail end of the field for most of the first half of the day. Aleshin fought his way to 17th before shortly losing a lap during the second pit stop rotation. Three trips down pit road in six laps and an amazing second restart allowed him to fight Juan Pablo for 11 laps, overtaking him in the process. Rahal was able to make his way to the rookie, but Aleshin held him off until the checkers to secure an eventual P12 finish. It was truly an interesting debut for the highest placed rookie and also the highest placed driver to make more than three stops.

Honda Twin – With only two Chevys in the top 9, it looks like Hondas decision to reconfigure their engine was a good decision. By moving to the twin turbo layout, Honda was able to more closely match the characteristics of the Chevy motor. Honda also took the opportunity to rethink the layout of a twin turbo motor. The manufacturer moved the two 10+ pound turbo units as far forward in the rear heavy DW12 as far as possible to improve weight distribution. This has allowed Honda to turn the tables in St Pietersburg as they have had a total of seven top ten finishers in 2012 and 2013 combined. 2014 saw that number equaled with Chevy placing only three drivers in the top ten. Honda feels much farther ahead of the curve than they have been at the start of the previous two seasons and has a much improved platform to compete with Chevy each week.

Coverage – I was able to catch a fair amount of radio coverage this weekend along with the ABC broadcast of the race. Pippa Mann and Paul Page did a great job for their first weekend together. It was rough in a few spots and a bit unfocussed, but much better than what we had been enduring in years past. The radio team still had the problem of sometimes not dictating the on-track action to the listeners. We don’t have video coverage and need the team to paint us the picture; I felt more than a little blind at some points in the coverage. ABC was no better or worse than last year. For an indycar fans with not much experience with NASCAR, new announcer Allen Bestwick was competent if not a bit timid in his new environment. Hopefully he will be a familiar voice for curious onlookers during the remainder of ABC’s coverage.

Really, the race was pretty straight forward. A few loose brains on THE restart, but by no means the worst we have seen out of this crop of drivers. Although Bestwick didn’t absolutely stun me, I felt his addition and chemistry, perceived or actual, with the rest of the broadcast team boosted the energy from the booth. While not totally stunning me, they were able to make what could have been a boring race entertaining and easy to follow. And that is really my take away from the weekend. There were more lock-step green flag laps than we are usually accustomed to at St. Pete, yet the race still felt compelling and unpredictable. Well done from everyone all around and a great start to what looks to be a great year.

Eric Hall

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