Random Thoughts On Watkins Glen

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The Penske-Ganassi blitzkrieg through the IndyCar season was put on hold for at least one week. That wasn’t surprising, as most fans agreed that the red car stranglehold would be broken at some point. The surprise was who did it and the fashion in which they pulled it off.

The fact that Justin Wilson won Sunday’s IndyCar race at Watkins Glen isn’t earth shattering, He was, in fact, the last non-Penske or Ganassi driver to win in the series; when he won an emotional victory for the ailing Paul Newman at Belle Isle last September while driving for Newman-Haas. No, the shocker was the team that won – Dale Coyne Racing. More stunning yet — was the fact that this was no fluke, as Wilson pretty much dominated the race and the weekend.

Wilson started on the front row alongside pole winner Ryan Briscoe. As Briscoe took the lead at the start of the race, Wilson served quick notice that he would not be content to run in second. He made an attempt to pass Briscoe on lap three that failed, but he had more steam in the same spot on the next lap. By the time the two reached the right-hander at the end of the backstretch, Wilson had the advantage. Except for the cycling of pit stops, Wilson pretty much stayed in the front. By lap thirty-eight (of sixty), Wilson had already clinched the two bonus points for leading the most laps.

This wasn’t just a second-tier that beat the Penske’s, Ganassi’s and the rest of the field. This was Dale Coyne Racing – a team that has redefined the word futility in open-wheel racing. Dale Coyne Racing had always been the equivalent of the Tampa Bay Rays in baseball (before last year), the New Orleans Saints in football or the L.A. Clippers in basketball…except worse. Those teams at least won a few times, anyway.

Dale Coyne Racing continually lowered the bar in open-wheel racing. Since 1984, Dale Coyne has entered cars in CART, Champ Car and the IRL. There have been 558 combined starts for Dale Coyne Racing, yet none of them produced a victory, until Sunday.

This was a team that has always been woefully under funded. In 1995, Coyne took on football great Walter Payton as a co-owner. The partnership did nothing to improve results, and soured before Payton’s death when Payton sued Coyne over a disagreement over a stock transfer.

Dale Coyne Racing fielded cars for such forgettable names like Dennis Vitolo, Andrea Montermini, Dean Hall and Franck Freon. Yet he also fielded cars for Paul Tracy, Buddy Lazier, Robbie Buhl and fellow car owner Eric Bachelart.

Regardless of the lack of funds and resources, Dale Coyne has always managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat in order to answer the bell, at the beginning of each season. He did it again for 2009; when he signed Justin Wilson just before spring testing started at Homestead. Despite a solid season driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan as a “transition” team, where he won a race; Wilson was kept in limbo for several months in the off-season before being unceremoniously dumped in favor of potentially signing Milka Duno and Robert Doornbos, who both brought cash. All Wilson offered was talent.

Milka eventually signed with Dreyer & Reinbold but Wilson was forced to sign with a perennial bottom-dweller; Dale Coyne Racing. Since becoming a new father just a few months earlier, Wilson did not have the luxury of waiting to see if something better might come along. Although Wilson put a positive spin on things in interviews, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Brit because you knew he had the talent to race with a much better team. Credit Wilson though, for staying focused through some dreadful oval results this season. He knew he had the talent to perform on the road courses…and that he did, on Sunday.

You have to feel good about that win on Sunday. This was no fluke. This was a case of an excellent driver knowing what to do with a well-prepared car. The pit crew performed well, also. To borrow the analogy from Brienne Pedigo, this was certainly David slaying several Goliath’s. I don’t know if Dale Coyne will visit victory lane again this season or ever again in his career. But I thought for a man that had dreamed of this day for twenty-five years, he handled himself with class and dignity. It was good to see someone that has provided such comic relief in the past, having the last laugh.

ABC/local coverage: I didn’t have many complaints about the ABC coverage. There were a few gaffes by Marty Reid and some questionable camera work, but their performance rated about a C+. I was much more frustrated with my local ABC affiliate, WKRN-Channel 2. Just before the mid-point of the race, the High-Def picture went away so they could put an obstructive banner announcing a thunderstorm warning for one single county in Kentucky. This sat there blocking the race graphics for over thirty minutes. When they finally took it down, it was another five minutes before they restored the High-Def wide-screen picture.

Of course, this was minor compared to the “Breaking News” that completely pre-empted the race with twelve laps to go. Instead, we were treated to the latest news conference regarding the Steve McNair murder, here in Nashville. Please don’t get me wrong…I was a Steve McNair fan and was very upset at the news of his death. However, I found it exasperating that they would break into a live sporting event to show a fifteen minute news conference that told us nothing new…and I mean NOTHING. They finally got us back to the race just as the final re-start was taking place. I can’t help but wonder…if this were the NASCAR race at The Glen, would Channel 2 have been so willing to break in?

This reminded me of the frustration I had with CART races covered by ABC in the early nineties. It wasn’t unusual for the local affiliate to not show Long Beach in favor of a telethon. Once in 1993, they opted to show Smokey and the Bandit II, instead of Milwaukee. That is why I have always selfishly preferred races on cable channels. You were never subjected to the whims of the Sunday afternoon program director.

Penske/Ganassi: Keep in mind that I am a Penske fan, but it was very refreshing to see someone else standing at the top of the podium. The red cars weren’t too far behind though, as they occupied the next three spots. Only Dario Franchitti stumbled, as he spun into the gravel pit at the bus-stop chicane on his way to a fifteenth place finish, dropping him into a tie for second with Briscoe. Franchitti gets the nod in a tiebreaker since he has more wins this season (2) than Briscoe (1).

Paul Tracy Flops: One of the bigger surprises for the weekend was the no-show pulled by Paul Tracy. I realize he had never raced at this track before and this was only his fourth race ever in an IRL car, but I expected more than what we saw. He was a non-factor in practice, qualifying and the race before he harmlessly crashed out right at the halfway point. I’m assuming he will be much more of a factor next week at Toronto; a track where he has won twice, in 1993 and 2003.

Overall: It was a pretty exciting race, especially for a road course. Kudos to race control for not throwing a yellow flag for a full-course caution on lap one, when Matos spun and Hunter-Reay got collected. There were plenty of green-flag pit stops and different teams tried different fuel strategies. It was also refreshing to see all the cars run at full rich at the end. No one likes to see cars trying to stretch mileage at the end of a race.

The setting in upstate New York made for a picturesque setting on television. Rumor has it that the track wants to move the date to the fall. Whenever they have it, I hope that this is one venue that whoever is now in charge of such things, will make sure they keep this historic track on the schedule.

George Phillips

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2 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Watkins Glen”

  1. A fall race, you say? Unfortunately, the only way for me to recollect the old USGP is through photos and videos…but the grand prix cars against a backdrop of fall foliage is pretty spectacular. If it’s feasible, gimme an IRL race at the beginning of October like the GP had.

  2. I’m so glad that an underdog team can win. Kudos to Bill Pappas, to justin and to Dale for hiring them. I also am glad that we didn’t suffer watching a ‘mileage game.’ And I was happy to see Justin driving away from followers to a richly-deserved win so that it was an obviously deserved win. He didn’t inherit the lead as Ryan did last year. But I am always sorely disappointed by unnecessarily long FULL-COURSE course caution periods when a single car stops far off the track, not impeding the race. Yes, I understand that Race Control would want to rescue Dario’s ‘beached’ car so that he could rejoin the competition. But the caution periods are SO LONG and full-course. Yes, I understand that tow trucks and Honda Ridgelines are on the track going to dario, Antinucci, et al,… but we don’t see this in Formula One.

    Have cranes positioned at likely crash sites so that they can hoist cars off the track. Pave the large run-off areas with various grades of gravel to provide friction to slow or stop errant cars so that they’re not ‘stuck in the kitty litter’ and spoiling the show. Paul Tracy’s sentiment that he was hoping for many ‘yellows’ was sad. Evryone should want full-tilt racing from green to checkers, not tooling around behind an Accord.

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