Into the Crystal Ball… 2013 Mega Preview Pt. 1, The Nuts and Bolts Edition

Into the...The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the start to the 2013 season is a bit over a week away, and after the horrendous six month off season, no better words could be spoken. The 19 race calendar is primed to produce incredible on-track action and another championship battle that will go down to the wire. Drivers and teams are in year two of the new equipment package and the previously mentioned lengthy offseason allowed engineers the time to refine their machines in preparation for a tough year ahead. Double-headers, Pocono and the Grand Prix of Huston all make returns to an already diverse championship trail and will even further test drivers and teams who have Astor Cup dreams. The racecars are faster, the grid is more competitive and everyone is more prepared for the coming season. A super-sized predictions and people preview will come next week, so for now here are some tidbits to think about.

Five Things to Watch

Testing times – I know you don’t win anything for practice, but any season preview that doesn’t mention the blistering testing times may not appreciate the gravity of the feat accomplished at Barber. Teams were able to shave nearly three seconds off of the pole time Will Power set at the track during the 2012 edition of the race. There were a few factors that were identified as causes for the increased speed. The freshly ground race surface was much more grippy than last year, Firestone brought a new compound tire to test on and the weather was cool, allowing the turbo engines to gulp, compress and burn just that much more air. However, the teams and engine manufacturer’s contributions cannot be overstated. There is clearly more power on tap especially after Honda came out to say they were playing it conservative in testing and the teams have had more than six months to find a few extra tenths in chassis construction and setup. They may not be the 900 horsepower beasts seen in the heyday of open-wheel racing, but there will definitely be track records falling all year long.

Tires – With the new found knowledge that Firestone brought a tire with more grip than last year begs the question: how will the degradation affect the racing this year? In 2012, the rubber actually lost grip throughout a run. And in some cases on ovals, drivers were asking for fresh rubber before the fuel windows opened because the tires degraded that much. In years past, you could almost double stint the tires at every facility the series visited. Now that Firestone has brought the new tire; will similar high grip compounds be used during the season, and will the newfound degradation seen in 2012 be carried into this new generation of tire? The Pirelli era in F1 and to a much smaller extent, indycar 2012, showed that fast burning tires can not only add a new wrinkle in race strategy, they can also greatly improve the show in a very pure way.

Engines – After an underpowered 2012, it looks like the Honda and Chevy have both found some extra power in the 2.2 liter engines. At road courses when the engine is running at nearly 700 horses, an extra percent or two of power could really go a long way. My biggest complaint about the IRL/Dallara era was the engines inability to accelerate the car the entire way down the straights. It seems like every competitor stalls out at about the same speed and in about the same places on track. This makes passing very hard, but problem was hidden a bit in 2012 due to the tires. Any gains in power will help this issue and it looks like we may have a sniff of extra muscle.

Reliability will undoubtedly be ahead of last year so we shouldn’t see nearly as many grid penalties as last year and now with the “if you take any extra engines over five, you won’t score manufacturer points” rule, Honda and Chevy will be pushed to increase reliability. But this may be done by turning down the new found power to levels similar to last year and in effect, increase reliability and fuel economy in the process. It will be very interesting to watch which path the manufacturers choose to take.

Pocono –Open wheel racing finally makes its return to the odd 2.5 mile oval in north east Pennsylvania. The once indycar stronghold with its three turns modeled after three historic ovals, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Trenton, and the longest superspeedway straight in the world was sorely missed, and an exciting addition to the schedule. Of course, with Fontana back on the schedule and now Pocono, INDYCAR management has revived the Triple Crown, albeit with the Pocono race clocking in at 400 miles, 100 miles short of what it should be due to the dreaded ABC TV window. 400 miles or not, the track should produce some incredible racing when the DW12’s finally hit the asphalt this summer after 23 long years that should have never taken place.

Double header weekends – New for 2013, and by all accounts a singular oddity in the modern era as they will most likely disappear in 2014, are double headers. Two full distance, full points paying races back to back on the streets of Belle Isle, Toronto and the Reliant Park parking lot in Houston are poised to push the paddock to its limit of sanity and logistical might. One mishap on Saturday could spell doom on Sunday. Will the teams be able to repair a heavily damaged car in the 20-22 hours between the Saturday and Sunday races? How will using Saturday morning warm up as qualifying for Sunday affect their setup and prerace process for race one? Simply put, there are many unknowns, and we could very well see huge championship swings given the totally foreign nature of these double header events. A cool vestige from the past that probably should have stayed in the past, but they still should produce some interesting story lines.

We are almost there and I can almost hear squealing tires! Without even getting into the people, 2013 has a very different look from 2012. It’s a very good thing that teams have had a year to figure out the equipment because they could be spending more time prepping for race weekends than developing their cars. Well, except for the four week break before the final two weekends, but that is a story and rant for later in the season. The summer stretch of eight straight weeks of on track action spanning from opening weekend in Indianapolis to the checkered flag of race two in Toronto will separate the serious championship teams from the rest and give us weeks upon weeks on non-stop indycar action. But it all starts on the runways of St. Petersburg… one more week…

Eric Hall

P.S. – For once, isn’t it incredible not discussing worries and problems of race control for an upcoming year?

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How High Is The Bar?

The last time Roger Penske hired a partial season driver, expectations were not extremely lofty. Will Power was asked to fill in for Helio Castroneves during his infamous tax evasion court case. At the time, Penske was simply making assurances that his team would be in a position to run two cars in the event that Helio’s case would not be completed before the opening round in St. Petersburg. As it turned out, Penske was correct in retaining a third driver as Power was tapped to fill in for the embattled Castroneves during the race weekend.

Power finished a remarkable P6 before being displaced from his seat by freshly acquitted Castroneves On the eve of qualifying for round two at Long Beach two weeks later. Bad news for Power, a skilled racer who had competed in the entirety of 2008 as a transition driver for a transition team, only to lose his ride for 2009. Penske came to the rescue, signing the Australian driver to a six race deal to include the 500. Power repaid Rogers good-will with a win, two podiums, a P5 finish at Indy and a P9 at Kentucky before being injured during a practice accident during his final appearance of the year in Sonoma.

In the light of Will Power’s exceptional performances from 2009, Penske inked a full season deal with Power during the off-season for the coming 2010 championship. Power performed right when he needed to; you usually only get one chance with Roger Penske, and Power proved he belonged with the most successful team in American open-wheel history. Not only did he excel when the pressure was on, Power also set the bar for any future partial season deals with Penske extremely high.

I won’t get into the road that has led AJ Allmendinger to open-wheel racing for the second time in his racing career, but suffice to say he has stumbled into an eerily similar position as Power was four years ago. AJ, a down on luck driver grasping at the final ropes of his quickly fizzling career, has found himself as the third pilot at Team Penske as a partial season entrant. All because of the good-will of Roger Penske; who fired the driver from his NASCAR team amid controversy and has hired him to Team Penske in indycar.

Power had the advantage of a much more complete partial season deal with Penske, years of open-wheel experience to draw upon and had contested the 2008 season with KV Racing. His win that season happened during five of his seven races that year. AJ has a two races; Barber and Indianapolis. And a good finish at Indy, say a P5 like Power during his partial season, could easily bring enough cash and sponsorship to fund his appearance at a few more rounds of the season.

Allmendinger isn’t light on open-wheel experience himself. After becoming a good ‘ol NASCAR boy, it’s easy to forget his 2003 Atlantics championship season. It’s nearly as easy to gloss over his 11 top fives in 27 rounds during his two full seasons with Champ Car team RuSPORT and his meteoric rise to the top once he jumped to Forsythe halfway through the 2006 season, racking up five wins in nine rounds before abandoning the team for a deal with the Red Bull NASCAR operation.

The seven years spent in NASCAR wasn’t too kind to the open-wheel refugee. AJ seemed unable to crack into the top 35 in points for three years and jumped between lower echelon teams before finding a few good results with Petty Motorsports and finally a permanent home at Penske Racing.

With all of that said, what are the true expectations of the once-young American open-wheel racing turned NASCAR star? In a word: high. AJ has the chops, or had the chops at one point. During his nine race stint with Forsythe, he showed he was an absolute force to be reckoned with when behind
the wheel for a championship capable team. And in the indycar arm of the Penske conglomerate, championship capable is the only iteration they know.

He also learned how to drive on ovals in Sprint Cup, where some of the world’s best oval drivers make their home. The transition will undoubtedly be tough, but Allmendinger has proven he can jump into nearly everything and be a contender. Look no further than his 24 hours of Daytona knife fight to the line win in 2012. The guy knows how to get around the twisties, and he has plenty of time to adjust to the oval car during practice for the 500.

Team Penske is perfectly capable of providing a car destined for the top step to a one off runner, and I guarantee you not a single corner will be cut during Allmendinger’s two outings with the team. I am sure the same funding could have been stretched to three or even four races, but the decision was made to do it right for two. All of the elements are there for AJ and Penske to make a huge splash in the series, but will he be able to capitalize on the opportunity like Will Power did?

If AJ can get a good finish at Indy, funding will be found to run him in a few more races. This could be good for the series. Most of my casual acquaintances know I am an indycar fanatic so they are always willing to answer my silly questions for casual sports fan. My favorite being: have you ever heard of so-and so? The usual answer is no, this includes Barrichello, Castroneves, Kanaan, Fisher, De Silvestro and many, many more. Allmendinger? More than a few have heard of him. Does that “move the needle”? doubtful, but at least more than just us in our little bubble know about him. That can never be bad, and is more than most indycar drivers can say save for Andretti and Wheldon, but both for the wrong reasons.

I am not a huge fan of his, but I am excited for another championship caliber driver from Champ Car getting a chance in the combined series. Like him or not, he has the skills and equipment to show some season regulars what he is made of. My personal expectations have never been as high for a one off than AJ Allmendinger’s coming campaign; I hope he can find enough success to reimagine his racing career. If nothing else, the guy who gained his oval chops in a fendered car should be fun to watch.

Eric Hall

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Is It March Yet?

#isitmarchyet

Yes it is! We have finally made it to the closing weeks of the six month off season. Six months?! That’s akin to cruel and unusual punishment; a rant for another day. But, here we are a mere 20 days from the green flag in sunny St. Petersburg and there could not be more excitement brewing among what is left of the indycar fanbase.

Last year we were all excited for the new equipment package, plain and simple. And whether or not you thought that new hardware was successful, sexy or needed last year, it’s here to stay for at least four more years. And it provides a workable base to slowly increase speeds (fingers crossed) over the next few years. The administration woes that really made me rethink my, and many others, level of commitment to the sport have more or less been smoothed over; or at least hidden from the public eye.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to get excited about in 2013, or to dread each new news release that comes from INDYCAR or IMS. Without the equipment to focus on, it seems like we have had more plain old news this off-season. It has been mostly quiet in indycar world, but only if you weren’t listening. We just get swallowed in the six month absence; as the old adage goes: indycar is its own worst enemy. None of that matters to me because we are close enough now and all that is important now is the racing.

So, what am I excited for?

- 400 more feet and approximately 18 more lanes of real estate on Pocono Raceway’s front straight than IMS.

- Watching Andretti Autosport solidifying their place, again, as a true powerhouse team.

- Finally hearing some of the world’s beefiest direct injection engines turning laps in anger for the first time in half a year.

- Indy

- The annual three-wide parade lap by Penske Racing to kick off free practice in May; now including AJ Allmendinger… hopefully.

- Feeling the struggle of the teams and drivers as they navigate through the three extremely busy double header weekends.

- Experiencing another season of a light-on-true-ride-buyer, heavy-on-talent competition between closely matched teams who are there for the sport.

- Watching Sebastien Bourdais fight with the big boys for an underfunded team; all while regaining his championship form and reminding people why he skipped the European feeder series and leapt straight to F1.

- A “normal” race season without extraneous dedications, moments of silence, teary-eyed interviews, or overly emotional scenes. Dan was a great man, but the racing moves on.

- The new and improved Lotus-free grid.

- Knowing there’s always more to a season than the championship title battle. Manufacturers, Rookies, ovals and twisties; a five-in-one championship series is always more entertaining.

- Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back race weekends starting with the 500, encompassing two long ovals, two shorts ovals and a double header weekend on the streets of Belle isle.

- Camping… family… friends… the worship of speed…

- Standing starts… double headers… ethanol exhaust… smoky burnouts… drizzle tires… high-side passes… high-speed knife fights… twin checkers… finish line drag races… close calls… precision driving… flat-out racing… carbon-fiber… milk… passion…

- Realized dreams… broken hearts… heroes… villains…

… The thrill of it all

I would never say I am walking away from the sport, because that would be a bold faced lie. And anyone reading this will never walk away either, that’s just how it is. Our participation ebbs and flows with life, but the love never dies. Top-level, American open-wheeled racing would have to cease to exist, and the Indy 500 would have to become a NASCAR race before I would ever “walk away”.

There is just something about indycar racing that no other form of motorsport can match. We have the sexiness of Formula One with the accessibility of a Saturday night short track combined with outright speed that no other form of circuit racing can boast. We may not be the best in every single aspect of competition and entertainment, but when pieced together makes indycar racing quite a complete package; even if no one watches.

Regular posting engaged… I’m back for the season and could not be more excited to see some good ol’ American grown open-wheeled racing. Is March 24th still too far away? Think about this: the September break is still one week longer than what we have until the season kicks off in Florida. Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Mid-Ohio are on my to-do list for the year, I’ll see you at the track!

Eric Hall

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Wikipedia and IndyCar Need Our Help!

For better or worse, Wikipedia is the largest public information repository to be found anywhere on the internet; all of it is all user created and maintained. In some eyes, wiki has a poor reputation, but sometimes with good reason. Its past issues with rampant page vandalism are well publicized and continue to be a hot button issue for editors of any level associated with the site. These bad eggs often ruin any shot at legitimacy Wikipedia can hope to maintain. Although there is a fear for new editors that their hard work will quickly be vandalized, such acts are extremely rare and are dealt with in a swift manner.

Although Wikipedia is open source, it could be the first experience many people have when looking for information on a new subject. Google anything indycar related and Wiki pages are almost certain to appear at, or very near, the top of the returned results. In the few years that I have been involved with Wikipedia, I have seen the American open-wheel racing entries improve in quality on a steady basis, but there are still more than a few less than desirable entries in our collection.

For good or bad, this is where most novices will begin their journey through indycar history and statistics. If this is our first offering, it should be as correct and complete as possible. In this age of instant information, a few missing or questionable authored paged could be enough to send a curious casual fan onto something else.

Poorly written pages, with incorrect and missing information, are still numerous. Many driver bio pages are short, outdated or just plain wrong. Track pages are NASCAR slanted even if indycar has a rich and storied history there. Event reports are missing. Entire early seasons of AAA racing are totally unaccounted for. And the picture selection is poor at best, if even present in some articles. The list could go on, but suffice to say, our little portion of Wikipedia could me much better.

Keeping these pages updated and accurate is certainly not a league reasonability. In fact, INDYCAR, driver PR, team officials or anyone who takes any kind of payroll due to indycar racing are asked to refrain from editing (read: if they want to edit, add all historical information without bias) due to a conflict of interest. Wikipedia doesn’t want socioeconomic underpinnings to taint history as is actually occurred. Operation: beautify indycar Wikipedia begins with us, the fans.

I challenge you to take ownership of our history. Wikipedia is here to stay whether we like it or not. We are some of the most knowledgeable students of a sport to be found anywhere, even in the stick and ball world. Our history is important to us, and we make no apologies for it. Each one of us can make a difference.

Once you have created an account, head over to the WikiProject American Open Wheel Racing and introduce yourself. The group is usually quiet, but that doesn’t mean no one is listening. In fact, there are extremely friendly and helpful editors associated with the project that are more than willing to answer questions and I have even seen a few floating around on trackforum and twitter.

Diving into the world of Wikipedia can be daunting. Stick to your strengths. Are you interested in a specific track, driver, machine, season or anything else that matters to your indycar world? Head there first and fill in any missing pieces of information. If everyone hardcore indycar fan who visits Wikipedia on a regular basis watched and updated a single page, there would not be a missing hole to be found. Peruse the NACSAR and F1 sections to get an idea of how good some of these pages can be written.

Each and every page also has a talk tab attached to it. This is where conversation about content, scope and completion can be found. Most articles don’t have much in terms of activity here, but I promise you someone is watching and will answer you if you ask something.

I have a watchlist, and you should too. A watchlist is your collection of pages that you have a vested interest in. When edits or changes are made to any page in your list, they are populated in an easy to read timeline you can access once signed into Wikipedia. After I check my email in the morning, I sign in and check my watchlist. 99.999% of the time the changes are worthwhile and no action is needed.

Remember, vandals want to be seen. They are not going to intentionally destroy the race report about Texas 1 from the 1998 season because the masses simply are not reading that page, but to us its content is still important. In the minutes after the Las Vegas wreck, Dan Wheldon’s page was locked from edits and reverted to the last agreed upon revision from a few days prior. A discussion was created in the following days to determine what to include, and how to proceed with an unbiased entry about the events, and what came out is one of the top indycar biographical articles available.

Once you gain a bit of comfort in editing, have at it! Only edit with good intentions, correct information and an unbiased viewpoint. INDYCAR is aware of the fluctuating quality of pages dealing with American open-wheel racing, and has actively asked historians to help contribute and cleanup some of the confusion. Unless the indycar community at large starts fixing this stuff it never will be done and each year that passes is one more year of misinformation we will have to contend with. If you need help or have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me through the usual routes. Let me know if you are taking action! Let’s use the amazing pool of historical knowledge we have and create the most complete indycar encyclopedia we can.

Eric Hall

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More Historic Racing Photos Saved From Destruction

After the huge response to the old racing pictures that were posted a bit over a week ago, I decided to go through the stack again and find a few “B” level ones. These 27 pictures are not as stellar as the initial 61, but there is still some cool stuff. With many thanks to Pat W (visit his blog), Jim and Will (visit his facebook Open-Wheel photo group) it has been found that most of the F1, F2 and Sports Car pictures are from the early 70’s at the old Interlagos circuit in Brazil, before the shortening of the track and before Sao Paulo engulfed the area around the facility. There is actually a shot of “pre race entertainment”, the guy jumping the motorcycle, and “Sao Paulo” can easily be seen on the background signage.

Everyone is more than welcome to play name the driver/track/year game to help identify some of these unknown images.

There of course a few more photos of indycars whipping around Indianapolis as well as a single shot from the parade. This pretty much includes the entirety of the quality shots to be found in the stack. There are many more of poor quality that did not make the cut, however I am very excited to be able to share these wonderful and historic images with you. Remember, these are large files, give them time to load.

We are within 60 days of the Indycar season opener in St. Petersburg Florida, so make sure you check back in the coming weeks for more regularly scheduled programing returning including a full season of coverage you have all come to know and love. As always, thank you for reading.

Eric Hall

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Saved From Destruction: Historic Racing Photographs, circa ’60s-’80s

Hello and welcome back, again! Long time readers of this blog know that I am quite the racing history junkie and today we will indulge ourselves with some lost photos. I have a friend who recovered these pictures from a dumpster and sent them my way; most are not indycar pictures, but this is the only avenue I have to release them.

I have no idea who the originating photographer was or even some of the venues that these pictures were captured. Even given the presence of Formula 1 and Formula 2 machinery in this gallery, I believe that all of these were all taken in the US, so if you think you can decipher what facility some of these were taken at let me know! included in the gallery are F1, Can-Am, USAC (indycars), and what looks to be some kind of pony series. Know venues are the Indy 500 parade, IMS and the old Texas World Speedway.

Captures of AJ Foyt, Paul Newman, James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and many more are included. The pictures are high resolution so be patient when loading this page and even more when opening specific pictures. I am very interested in your feedback in determining driver/location/series/year so please help if you can!

Eric Hall

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The Little Engine That Couldn’t

It’s situation normal on the engine side of things in indycar world. A decision a few years ago is biting them in the rear and there’s not much they can do other than wait out the contract cycle. Ask anyone involved with the series and they will tell you: the number one request is more horsepower from the engines.

This topic comes up on a weekly basis in Robin Miller’s mailbag and always seems to have legs whenever someone on a forum or on twitter wants to ask the question of: why no more horsepower? The current 2.2 liter turbocharged engine formula produces between 550 in speedway trim and 600 in short oval trim. That number is limited by turbocharger pressure purely for safety and engine longevity reasons.

I like pressuring engine manufacturers to make a more reliable engine to contain costs in the long run instead of finding means to make it cheaper right now. Less power means less stress on an engine and on an engine near the redline at full power for two h ours could use some stress relief. However, I think we would all like to see some more speed out of the chassis at places like Indianapolis, California and Milwaukee.

The question of driver safety inevitably follows, and if speed must be limited to make the show  feel safer, I would rather it be done with power reductions instead of wing limits. Limiting speed through drag created the spectacle that was open-wheeled pack racing and I respect the need not to see that again. But watching 250 mile an hour bullets shoot into turn one at Fontana would be an awesome sight to behold.

All of this makes sense to me, and the power deficiency is apparent when the drivers are turning right. The engines were making 700 horsepower until push to pass was implemented by lowering base power by 5 or 10 horses. This is just not enough oomph for circuit racing, plain and simple.

Drivers want more power and fans absolutely want more power, but the engines can’t even create much more over the 700 already available from the small displacement engines, even if they wanted to. At the current RPM limit, the engines are nearly maxed out in their ability to create power out of 2.2 liters no matter how much fuel or boost you add.

The ironic part of this whole story; the detail that makes the series look aloof, is originally displacement was quoted at 2.4 liters. The series and manufacturers agreed to the engine shrink because it would be easier from an engineering standpoint to further decrease displacement from  2.2 liters to 1.6 in the future if that was deemed desirable in the next generation of engine formula.

Had the series and manufacturers stuck with the larger displacement engine, we could have made more power for next year instead of being stuck with an underpowered engine whose only developmental future is to become even smaller and more underpowered. Poor planning, considering big speed and big horsepower numbers is what always set American open-wheel racing apart from Formula 1.

Pop shots at the series aside, there is another way to increase power without forcing a complete redesign of the engine block. The 12,000 RPM limit was set because of the use of traditional metal valve springs. The rev limit is in the upper range for what is possible with the traditional alloy springs.

The introduction of a pneumatic valve system would allow the engines in their current configuration rev higher and produce more horsepower. Cost was specifically mentioned as the reason such a system would not be used in indycar. I can partially believe this from the Chevy side, but Honda has made both Formula 1 and Moto GP engines using such a setup, not to mention the technology has been in use in F1 for some 15 years.

In the long run, the cost of developing a pneumatic system would eventually be offset by a more reliable unit. The weakest point of a traditional valvetrain is more often than not the metal springs. When one goes, valves start dropping and the cascading engine kablamo follows in very short order. Once you take the springs out of the picture, the piston connecting rods become the weakest point of the system; a much stronger weakest link. A definite good thing if the series and manufacturers wish to continue this line of engine development into the future.

However, we do know that Honda, Chevy and even Judd/Lotus have developed the highest reving direct injected engine in the world, and I have no idea if the simultaneous introduction of pneumatic lifters would have made initial developments costs astronomical. But we are way past initial development.

Increased revs would not only unleash precious more power, but they would change the sound of the engine. One of the very few complaints I have with the new engine is they don’t really sound like an indycar. The engine note is throatier, and not as piercing as one would expect from a top level open wheeled monster. The addition of the turbochargers were, in theory, supposed to produce that distinctive turbo scream, but because of the low boost produced that whine never really comes through.

As with most of my “ideas” floated on these pages, this is totally pie in the sky and I think there is a better chance that Lotus will win the 2013 500 than the introduction of pneumatic valvetrains anytime soon. I can totally live with 700 horses but still would love to see a hundred or so more added in the near future. The current engine formula is a wonderful platform to perform real engine development on, something that has been missing from the series for far too long. Lets hope we don’t have a five year long engine freeze.

Eric Hall

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