Random Thoughts On Milwaukee
What if the IZOD IndyCar Series put on a great show and there was nobody there to watch it? Would it still be great? The answer is: Yes! Saying there was no one at The Milwaukee Mile may be a bit of an exaggeration, but from the grandstand shots that I saw – the place looked to be more than half-empty. That’s a shame, because those that stayed away missed an outstanding show that was eventually won by Dario Franchitti.
There are many theories floating around as to why the crowds were slim. Some say it was because the website for ordering tickets was cumbersome and confusing. Others claim that the ticket prices were way too high. The promoters came up with a two-for-one deal when it became obvious that ticket sales were sluggish, but it probably came too late and reeked a little of desperation.
A few years ago, the problem was very little racing over the weekend. That was certainly not the case this past weekend. There were two USAC races, a USF2000 race, a Star Mazda race and a Firestone Indy Lights race; all capped off with the IZOD IndyCar Series race on Sunday afternoon. Whatever the case, I was disappointed when I saw the stands yesterday.
Those that came saw one heckuva race on Sunday. At first, it looked like it might be a snoozer. Dario Franchitti dominated from the pole and led for the first half of the race. His car was dialed in at the beginning of each stint, but would start going away. He checked out at the start, leaving Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan to battle for second. Then, Helio started catching up to him. Ana Beatriz caused a caution on Lap 65, when she brushed the wall. After the yellow-flag pit stops, Franchitti left everyone behind again. As before, his car started going away about halfway through the second stint. This time, Tony Kanaan passed him on Lap 116 and he started pulling away.
Franchitti was saved by another yellow when J.R. Hildebrand struck the Turn Four wall in an eerily similar fashion to his shunt at Indianapolis. Again, Franchitti pulled away on the re-start. As before, Franchitti’s car kept backing up to the field and Kanaan took the lead on Lap 154. Ten laps later, Kanaan’s teammate EJ Viso spun into the Turn Four wall. When Kanaan entered the pits, he was leading. He came out trailing Helio and Dario respectively. But this time, there was no re-start magic for Dario. Kanaan passed him and set his sights on Helio, who was nursing a low tire.
This was shaping up to be a battle between two great friends and/or bitter rivals. Both Kanaan and Castroneves needed a win in the worst way and this looked like it was going to be a classic. It was not to be. As the two combatants were exiting turn four to complete Lap 195, Kanaan inexplicably lost the back-end of the car. He would later admit it was driver error – he was simply pushing too hard to try and catch Helio, who would take advantage of the caution to change his left-rear tire.
So who did this leave to take the victory? Dario Franchitti. But he truly earned this one. He drove the wheels off the car, yet was seemingly under attack all day. Surprisingly, Will Power closed out a highly disappointing weekend and finished fourth, after starting seventeenth. That means that there is a tie atop the points battle. Both Power and Franchitti have exactly 271 points and three wins apiece for the season. My guess is that if there had to be a tie-breaker at this point (which there doesn’t), Power would get the nod with four poles for the season, compared to Franchitti’s one.
Several drivers had good runs yesterday, besides the aforementioned Will Power. Graham Rahal was most impressive finishing second after starting twelfth. James Hinchcliffe came in sixth after starting sixteenth and Danica Patrick finished fifth after qualifying fifteenth. A nod should also go to Oriol Servia, who put a disappointing run at Texas behind him and came in third after starting tenth.
TV Coverage: After a rocky start with their pre-race show, I actually thought ABC/ESPN did a good job. Marty Reid fumbled through video highlights of AJ Foyt’s career at the historic mile track during the pre-race, but after that – they did a good job overall.
One major flub, however, came on the first round of pit stops. Takuma Sato hit a tire that caused all sorts of chaos on pit road and the result was a major re-shuffle of some positions. Instead of sorting this out, viewers were left to wonder where the tire came from and who it affected as ABC cut away for a long string of commercials. That should have demanded that they stay with the action a little longer. Instead, it sent the message that the sponsors are way more important than the viewers.
I was pleased to hear the normally staid Scott Goodyear give some unusually candid and pointed comments. He aimed his comments at Panther Racing and John Barnes, whom Goodyear once drove for. Goodyear confirmed what I had long suspected: that John Barnes is a demanding owner who is not that easy to get along with. Goodyear also pointed out that other than the Indianapolis 500, Panther has been pretty much off the pace all season long. Surely John Barnes isn’t thinking of jettisoning a rookie after a handful of races. That would solidify what Goodyear was inferring about Barnes. Whatever his motivation, I was glad to hear Goodyear go out on a limb and give a strong opinion on a subject that a lot of us don’t already know.
Good day for Newman/Haas: It was good to see both Newman/Haas drivers get back on track after a poor showing at Texas. In fact, James Hinchcliffe turned in his best oval performance of his young IndyCar career when he finished sixth on Sunday. His overall best was a fourth place performance at Long Beach. Oriol Servia reclaimed third place in the points by finishing third on Sunday. It’s good to see that the promise this team showed in the early spring was not a fluke. Hopefully they can continue their momentum through the summer and convert this resurgence into a victory before the season is over.
Mixed results for the Ganassi Satellite team: While Graham Rahal was driving to an impressive second-place finish; Charlie Kimball was struggling again for answers. The true rookie finished fourteenth, but was actually ahead of only three cars still running at the end. For the third event in a row, he was in a position where he hindered the leaders late in the race by running much slower in the turns. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if he has a knack for being in the way. Whatever the case, we all voiced our displeasure when it was Milka Duno causing the problems. Should the series start using the same scrutiny for Kimball? Other than a tenth place finish at Barber, it has not been a good start to the young rookie’s career, given the level of the equipment he is running.
What has happened to SFR? After an impressive run in qualifying for Indianapolis and a decent run in the race, Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Racing have gone disturbingly quiet in the last two events. Counting the two events at Texas, Ed has finished eighteenth, sixteenth and fifteenth in the last three races. I suppose a fifteenth place finish at Milwaukee can be considered a success, given their tough weekend where they struggled for speed in every session. Still, Ed finished ahead of only one car that was running – the struggling car of rookie Ana Biatriz.
Unlike HVM or Foyt, this team hasn’t lost a car to damage. They showed so much promise in their first outing of the season at Indianapolis, but have seemed to go backwards since. If anyone knows what the problem is, please let me know. It is one of the more perplexing situations of the last two weekends.
All in all: I thought this was a great race. It is what short oval racing is all about. As Dario Franchitti found out; being great at one point in the race doesn’t guarantee success at other parts. As Tony Kanaan found out, a track like The Milwaukee Mile can humble you quickly. It’s a shame that TK felt the need to push so hard in his pursuit of Helio. Had he known about Helio’s tire going down, he could have just let that situation run its course. I think Kanaan had the car to beat Franchitti, but as Rick Mears used to say: “To finish first, you must first finish”. Tony Kanaan made an uncharacteristic mistake and did not finish.
This was an entertaining race. Unlike the twins at Texas, this race had a flow to it and had some intriguing storylines. But the attendance was poor. Marty Reid made a good point after the race when he said that “…it’s hard enough to start up a new race, but it’s three times harder when you are trying to resurrect a race”. I hope there was enough interest to give promoters and the series enough hope to give The Milwaukee Mile another chance in 2012. It is a venue that needs a permanent place on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.