New Hampshire Preview
You really have to be a road course purist if you’re not happy to see an oval race on the IZOD IndyCar schedule this weekend. After that cure for insomnia at Mid-Ohio this past Sunday, I would have to think that the upcoming race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, NH should be a welcomed change.
Most of the NASCAR Cup races have not been riveting to watch, but I can recall some CART and IRL races from the nineties that were actually pretty good. The 1.058-mile oval opened in 1990 as it hosted the NASCAR Busch Grand National (now Nationwide) Series. CART made its first appearance over the Fourth of July weekend in 1992, with Bobby Rahal winning on his way to his third series championship. Other CART winners were Nigel Mansell (1993), Al Unser, Jr. (1994) and André Ribeiro (1995). With the exception of Ribeiro, every winner went on to win the championship that year.
My most vivid memory from those early years was in 1994; when then-rookie Scott Sharp flipped over on the backstretch in a spectacular crash and skidded along his rollbar for what seemed like forever before coming to a rest still upside down. Legend has it that he was calmly talking on the radio with his crew before the car came to a halt. I’m not sure if that’s exactly true but it makes for a good story.
In 1996, CART was replaced by the upstart rival Indy Racing League. The excellent crowds that CART had enjoyed, immediately disappeared when the IRL began racing at what was then known as New Hampshire International Speedway. Scott Sharp won the first IRL race at New Hampshire. Other Indy Racing League winners were Robbie Buhl in 1997 and Tony Stewart won the final open-wheel race held there in 1998. The IRL crowds had dwindled so much in three years, that it no longer made sense to stage any more events there. I can recall the stands appearing to be almost completely empty during that final race.
From 1998 until this coming weekend, there has been no open-wheel racing at New Hampshire. It has since become the domain of NASCAR, with two Cup races run there since 1997. The track was the site of two separate NASCAR tragedies in 2000. In May of 2000, driver Adam Petty lost his life. Just two months later, driver Kenny Irwin was fatally injured in almost the same exact spot. New Hampshire was also the site of the only post-Thanksgiving NASCAR Cup race in modern times. In 2001, the fall NASCAR race at New Hampshire was postponed the weekend following the attacks on September 11. The makeup date was Thanksgiving weekend. New Hampshire is not the warmest place in the world in late November.
Before the beginning of the 2008 NASCAR season, the track was acquired by Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI). By summer of 2010, Bruton Smith and Randy Bernard came to an agreement to give open-wheel racing another chance in the New England area. The track can certainly benefit from the promotional expertise that SMI brings. Plus, the IZOD IndyCar Series of today brings a lot more clout than the IRL of the late 1990’s that featured such names as Brad Murphey, Racin Gardner and Billy Roe.
As far as this weekend’s race goes; a short oval that bears a resemblance to The Milwaukee Mile is not the best place for Will Power to be playing catch-up. He drove a solid race at Mid-Ohio, but suffered bad luck when it came to pit strategy. As Power struggled to a fourteenth place finish, the best he could hope for was for Dario Franchitti to falter. He finished second. Power has one oval win to his credit – the second leg of the Twin 125’s at Texas, when Dario Franchitti was concerned that a bad draw could cost him the championship. With a sixty-two point lead, I don’t think Franchitti is too worried where he drew at Texas in June right now.
No one on the entry list for Sunday’s race has ever raced an IndyCar at New Hampshire. So, everyone is on a level playing field as far as experience at this facility goes. Paul Tracy has, but his Dragon Racing team is not entered this weekend. It’s also a short week considering teams had to leave Mid-Ohio and change their cars from a road course configuration to be ready to race on a short oval just one week later.
One of my favorite drivers is making her first return to the cockpit since the Indianapolis 500. Pippa Mann, who celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday yesterday, is driving the first of a three-race deal for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this weekend. Pippa did extremely well in sub-par equipment at Indianapolis while driving for Conquest Racing. Now she is in what should be a fast car with a good team.
Although she had a rough day yesterday spinning in each practice session – the second time causing slight damage to her car – I think Pippa will have a good race on Sunday. I expect Pippa will take it slowly at first, then become racy after about forty or fifty laps. Although it’s only her second IndyCar race ever, don’t be surprised to see Pippa finish in the top half of the grid. All she needed was some experience and a chance to show what she is capable of. Bobby Rahal has given her the chance she needs. I’m hoping she can take the three races she has with RLLR and parlay that into a full-time effort for 2012.
Based on yesterday’s practice times, one would think that we are looking at another Ganassi sweep of the top spots; as Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal had the three fastest times. The next three cars were all from KV Racing Technology. In case you are wondering – the top Penske driver was Ryan Briscoe in twelfth, while Helio Castroneves was sixteenth fastest and Will Power was mired with only the nineteenth quickest time of the day. There may be very little to read into this, since it was practice. Some cars may have been running qualifying setups while others could have been in full race trim. Still, you have to wonder if Tim Cindric and Will Power aren’t scratching their heads just a little.
I have a feeling that as dull as Mid-Ohio was, New Hampshire may be the opposite. I don’t expect a lot of boneheaded moves resulting in a crash fest. Instead, I think there will be a lot of tight racing with an exciting finish.
With only six races remaining in the 2011 season, I have yet to pick a winner. Who will I put my curse on this week? Scott Dixon won his first race of the season last week. Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are all previous multiple race winners that find themselves without a victory this season. One of them will break that string on Sunday. Tony Kanaan was seemingly en route to win at Milwaukee before he made a mistake. Look for Tony Kanaan to break through and give KV Racing Technologies their first win in the IZOD IndyCar Series.