Random Thoughts On Iowa
Although the weather looked ominous just a few hours earlier, yesterday’s Iowa Corn 250 at Iowa Speedway came off without a hitch. Helio Castroneves won the third heat race on Saturday, which meant that he would start on the pole. However, he incurred a ten- grid-spot penalty for an unapproved engine change. Fortunately for Helio, he was able to keep the nine points that came with winning the heat race. That put his teammate, Will Power, on the pole to start the race with James Hinchcliffe on the outside of the front row. That was about as close to glory as Will Power would come. By the end of the first lap, James Hinchcliffe was in the lead and he never looked back.
Yes Hinchcliffe dominated the race, but that doesn’t mean it was boring – far from it. Although the leader pretty much remained static throughout the race, except for pit stop re-shuffling – there was all kinds of action going on behind the leader.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had the drive of the day. He made a mistake early, when he clipped the rear wheel of Graham Rahal and had to change his front wing. That put him back to twenty-first and the last car on the lead lap. But he showed his grit by carving his way up through the field and showing everyone that he isn’t satisfied with just one championship. Hunter-Reay finished second, and had he not been boxed in by three backmarkers late in the race, he could have made a serious challenge for the win. As it was, he salvaged a ton of points and took advantage of a so-so day by Helio Castroneves. Hunter-Reay now trails Helio in the points standings by those nine points Helio got for winning the third heat race on Saturday.
Tony Kanaan had a spirited battle with Graham Rahal for third. Kanaan had pitted earlier and had fresh tires. That proved to be the difference as Rahal’s tires started going away. He lost third to Kanaan and eventually lost fourth to Ed Carpenter. Still, after I questioned his desire on Wednesday – give Rahal credit for showing up very racy this past weekend.
It was another clean race. A few drivers brushed the wall, and Alex Tagliani spun bringing out a yellow – but there was no actual carnage. In fact, we haven’t seen any significant damage to any cars since the melee that took place during the second race at the Belle Isle double-header. Not only is that good because no drivers were put in peril, but it also means that the teams made it though this stint of six races in five weeks without repairing a lot of crashed race cars. That means SportsCenter had little to show what their definition of racing action was, but it’s always good when crashes are held to a minimum.
TV Coverage: First of all, I found the pre-race segment where Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear assigned mid-season grades to teams to be a little awkward. Neither of them seemed comfortable in their roles. I think John McLallen and I are more relaxed on our “One Take Only” spots than these two were. Maybe I missed it, but what was the deal with the Fan’s Poll on the far right of the screen? Who was polled and when did this happen? Perhaps I had a brain-fade and they explained this source, but I never heard it. Why have it up there if you’re not even going to explain it.
On the plus side, I thought that ABC’s coverage for Sunday’s race was an improvement over what they gave us two weeks ago in Texas. But I’ve also resigned myself that with this announcing crew in the booth, we will never get what NBCSN gave us at Milwaukee. It simply boils down to chemistry, or lack thereof. I still contend that Scott Goodyear is not the problem. He simply plays up or down to whomever he is paired with. If it were up to me (which thankfully, for everyone, it is not) I would keep Goodyear and let the other two go. I’ve piled on Marty Reid enough that to do more is pointless. To me, the biggest disappointment is Eddie Cheever.
I keep going back to that race at Texas in 1998. Cheever was an early out, and he was asked to come join Paul Page in the booth. He did and he was hilarious. He offered fresh insight with a sharp sense of humor. We all knew at some point he would be in the booth calling races. It came to fruition ten years later in 2008 for the Indianapolis 500 coverage only, but has been a massive disappointment. The new Eddie Cheever comes across as a monotone stuffed shirt with no sense of humor. A “bump on a log” comes to mind when describing what Cheever brings to the broadcast. His first year, I chalked it up to nerves – but it didn’t improve. When they announced that for this season, he would join Reid and Goodyear for the entire season; I thought that this was a chance for the team to build some chemistry. It hasn’t happened. As we approach their season farewell with one race to go in two weeks – I can only hope that this is a permanent farewell to this broadcasting team.
If I were the only one saying this, it might be written off as me being tough to please or having some sort of agenda. But that isn’t the case. In fact, I’m not sure that this current ABC/ESPN announcing team has any supporters. The best thing I read here and elsewhere is that some people don’t think they are too bad. If that’s the best that can be said – there are problems. Enough said.
Speaking of awkward: Maybe it’s just me, but I found it just a tad bit awkward that the National Guard is still running the commercial with JR Hildebrand in his Panther Racing driving suit. I understand that this was an effective spot and the cost was probably significant. But since he is no longer with Panther Racing, it just seemed a little odd. I’m sure that Hildebrand is just as committed to the National Guard as ever, but to use his likeness in a Panther Racing uniform seemed just a little distracting.
Back to reality: While many teams and drivers are enjoying breakout seasons, one team that found success earlier is now falling back to the pack – and the grips of reality. It’s now like a distant memory that Takuma Sato and AJ Foyt Enterprises were leading the points through the Month of May. Sato won at Long Beach and came within one turn and a few blocks of winning at Brazil. Since then, Sato has finishes of thirteenth, nineteenth, twenty-third, eleventh, seventh and twenty-third. As a consequence, Sato has slipped from leading the points just a month ago to currently sitting in eighth.
Most know that I am a Team Penske fan. I also currently pull for KV Racing Technology because that’s where Tony Kanaan drives. But my sentimental favorite has always been the team of AJ Foyt. After so many lean years at this fabled team, it was good to see them on top. Now I wonder if what we saw from Sato and Larry Foyt was an anomaly. The season is half over. Which results are we going to see from AJ Foyt Enterprises? The one that was smart and aggressive in making all the right moves, or the one that shows up with ill-prepared cars, questionable pits stops and strategy as well as driver mistakes? I’m really not sure, but as a fan of this team, I feel like a Cubs fan that has seen their team close out April in first place. You know it isn’t for real.
Too many yellows: Now, I’m not talking about there being too many caution periods in Sunday’s race. In fact, there were only three for twenty-nine laps – making it a very clean race.
No, I’m talking about the actual number of yellow cars in this race. It used to be that if your driver was in a bright yellow car, it was very easy to pick him or her out – whether at the track or from your couch. This race had five cars with predominantly yellow paint schemes – three were in the top five. Several years ago, black was the hot color. Then around 2005, it seemed that everyone had a blue & white car. Now it’s yellow. I know teams have to go with what the sponsor wants, but it seems strange that this year (this week especially) so many are yellow.
Credit Hunter-Reay: Not only did Ryan Hunter-Reay have the drive of the day to go from twenty-first to second, but he also had the class move of the day.
When he was explaining to his team what had happened when he clipped Graham Rahal’s left rear, he could have just as easily laid some or all of the blame on Rahal. Instead, he owned up and said he simply made a mistake and misjudged his move.
There was a time a few years ago, when Hunter-Reay would have tried to point the finger of blame on another driver. But this version of Ryan Hunter-Reay is more secure and confident in his driving ability and his status among his fellow drivers. In short, he is not driving for his job. I’d say his employment is fairly secure and he doesn’t feel the need to randomly blame other drivers for his mistakes. Other drivers could take a cue from RHR.
The championship battle: Speaking of Ryan Hunter-Reay, I continue to think that this championship is his for the taking. He didn’t win this race like he did last year, but he came pretty close. None of the other points leaders act like they want to stay there, including the current one. Personally, I’m pulling for Helio to finally win his first championship –but he needs to drive more like he wants it.
Helio has held the lead for the longest, but it seems very tenuous. Hunter-Reay is driving like he wants it. He is being consistently fast and smart. Most importantly, when he does make a mistake like he did Sunday, he is able to put it behind him and forget about it. Don’t be surprised if he is hoisting the Astor-Challenge Cup again at the end of this season.
All in all: I thought this was a very good race. What it lacked in drama up front, it certainly made up for behind the leader. James Hinchcliffe is having an unbelievable season. It’s easy to forget that he was winless coming into this season. Now he leads all drivers this season with three victories. The odd thing is how hot & cold his season has been. His three wins are offset by finishes of twenty-sixth, twenty-sixth, twenty-first and nineteenth. Finally at Texas and Milwaukee he was able to string together a pair of top-ten finishes without winning. That’s what it takes to win a championship. With his win on Sunday, Hinchcliffe jumped to fourth in the overall standings.
But there was no question who the class of the field was on Sunday. Michael Andretti’s team has now won five of the seven races at Iowa, with Hinchcliffe being the latest to benefit from this team’s setup. They are obviously doing something right.
Pure race fans enjoyed this race on Sunday. Those that complained that only ten cars remained on the lead lap, there weren’t any spectacular crashes and that the same driver led all but twenty-three laps don’t understand how to appreciate good racing. There is so much more to this sport than swapping the lead while running side-by-side. This race was a case study in what to appreciate about open-wheel racing.