Looking Ahead To Chicago
The IndyCar Series heads north this weekend, to one of my favorite cities – Chicago. I was telling a reader earlier this week that Chicago is undoubtedly my favorite “big” city in the US. Chicago has all of the amenities of a large metropolitan area, with the charm of a smaller town. Just to the southwest is Chicagoland Speedway, which is located in (ahem) beautiful Joliet, IL. Aside from its semi-scenic locale, Chicagoland Speedway is home to some of the most exciting races that the IndyCar Series has seen – and that includes Texas Motor Speedway. Practically every IndyCar race at Chicagoland has had a dramatic moment to remember it by.
Ryan Briscoe probably hates to return to this track. Not because of the lingering memories of his fiery 2005 crash when his Target Panoz touched wheels with Alex Barron and was launched into the fence. His car literally broke apart in mid-air and he sustained multiple injuries. Instead, he probably hates the return trip because it is all that he will hear about all weekend. People like me will keep bringing it up. Versus will feel obliged to play the crash during the qualifying show and the race broadcast. Lindy Thackston will make him relive the moment at least once this weekend. He’ll pleasantly endure it, knowing he’ll have to go through the same exercise next year.
But there have been better moments at Chicago. In fact, there is a history of open-wheel racing in the Chicago area dating back to 1914 when 100-lap races were run on a one-mile dirt oval at the Galesburg District Fairgrounds. Then they ran AAA-sanctioned races at Speedway Park in Maywood, IL on a board track from 1915 to 1918.
Although USAC ran championship races in DuQuoin and Springfield; there were no more open-wheel races in the Chicago area until Chip Ganassi built the short-lived Chicago Motor Speedway in nearby Cicero, which was transformed from Sportsman’s Park – a horse racing facility. CMS was a one-mile “paper-clip” style oval with extremely tight turns on each end and provided notably boring racing. It hosted CART races from 1999 until it closed in 2002.
Chicagoland Speedway was part of the racetrack construction explosion of the mid to late nineties that saw new racetracks popping up everywhere. In a five year span, tracks sprouted up at Fontana, CA, Texas, Homestead, Kansas, Kentucky, Nashville and Chicago. Many, like Chicago, were of the 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” D-shape variety. One unique feature of Chicago is the fact that the track is in a constant curve. Even the backstretch has a slight curve shape to its layout.
Besides Briscoe’s 2005 crash, there have been other memorable moments at the track. The races in 2002 and 2003 both involved Sam Hornish, Jr. and photo finishes. The 2002 race saw Hornish nip Al Unser, Jr. at the line by a mere .0024 seconds, after a side-by-side battle that lasted the final twenty-two laps. In 2003, Hornish again was the victor. This time he edged Scott Dixon and Bryan Herta at the line. The three were separated by less than .01 seconds. That race saw the lead change hands twenty times officially, among eight different drivers.
Who could forget the championship battle of 2007, when it came down to Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti? Dario led Dixon by three points entering the Chicago race, which was the season finale. As it usually does, the race had come down to fuel strategies. Dixon was leading Franchitti on the final lap. As they went into turn three, Dixon’s car sputtered as he was running out of fuel. Dario almost collected Dixon’s car as he squeezed by him coming out of turn four. Franchitti took the win and the championship.
Last year again involved Scott Dixon. This time he had a thirty-point lead over Helio Castroneves going into the race, which again was the last race of the season. Helio had to win and hope for Dixon to finish worse than eighth if he were to have any hopes for the championship. To make matters worse, Helio had to start the race from the back of the field. In the end, Helio was battling Dixon for the race win. As they crossed the line at virtually the same time, the nod was initially given to Dixon. While Dixon was celebrating the race win and the championship he had just earned, timing and scoring reviewed the tape and declared Castroneves the eventual race winner. Helio’s win over Dixon was by a mere .0033 seconds.
Although the “cookie-cutter” tracks have fallen under a great deal of criticism for being so homogenized and having no personalities, there is something about the 1.5 mile ovals that lend themselves to exciting racing with the IndyCars. Obviously, Chicagoland is no exception. I’ve never been to the track and I won’t be able to go this year, either. If this year’s race is as good as in year’s past, I think I may put it on my radar for 2010.