Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg
Every race has one signature moment. A couple of weeks after it has transpired, you usually look back and think of one moment that automatically identifies that particular race. For me, the signature moment for yesterday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was undoubtedly Will Power causing an accordion effect on a restart. Whether it was intentional or not, the result was Marco Andretti and Jack Hawksworth having their race end on Lap 83.
When I first saw it, I was wondering if Power had forgotten that double-file restarts had been done away with on road/street courses. It almost looked as if he was waiting for the second place car of Helio Castroneves to pull up alongside.
That would have made more sense than Power’s explanation that the green came out early before he had reached the acceleration zone, so he slowed down. If you are a driver and you see the green, whether or not you are expecting it – isn’t your first instinct to go and ask questions later. Of course, that logic didn’t work out so well for Scott Goodyear in the 1995 Indianapolis 500. Goodyear ended up being black-flagged in that fateful race, while Power ended up celebrating yesterday’s win at the top of the podium – so what do I know?
The season-opener for the Verizon IndyCar Series was not a nail-biter, but it wasn’t necessarily a snooze-fest either. It was entertaining enough with a lot of good racing going on behind the leaders. Up front, Will Power made a textbook pass for the lead on Takuma Sato on Lap 31. Graham Rahal started in the last row, but passed twelve cars on the opening lap. He darted out to the right at the green flag; narrowly avoided James Hinchcliffe, who had similar thoughts and had a huge run before reaching Turn One – passing a slew of cars along the way. Unfortunately for him, that was pretty much the highlight of his day. From that point on, Rahal was pretty much of a non-factor, and finished fourteenth.
Speaking of non-factors, that would describe Juan Montoya. He started eighteenth and ran as low as twentieth before finishing fifteenth. After seeing what Kyle Larson has done with Montoya’s former NASCAR ride, I’m beginning to think that the thirty-eight year-old Columbian may not have much left in the tank. You can’t make too much out of one race, but one wonders if this transition may be a little tougher than Montoya thought.
It’s a shame that this race will be most remembered for the botched re-start on Lap 81. Did Power intentionally slow and play dumb afterwards? Was Johnny Rutherford driving the pace car too slowly just before the re-start? Is IndyCar to blame? Apparently, they moved the acceleration zone yesterday morning, before the race after having it in another area for most of the weekend. Perhaps that led to the confusion. Whatever the case, it clouds Power’s victory; on a day when he made no other mistakes. He drove an otherwise perfect race and deserved the win. But all parties involved need to figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again.
TV Coverage: Credit needs to go to ABC/ESPN for their production of yesterday’s race. From the opening, it was obvious that things had changed in their mindset. The opening montage did a good job of capturing the highlights of last season. They also had good segments on the relationship between AJ Foyt and Takuma Sato; along with an interesting feature on how important the chemistry within a team can be.
But the most refreshing part of the ESPN telecast was the improvement in the booth. Allen Bestwick put everyone’s fears to rest that he would come off as a NASCAR guy doing IndyCar. The only two things that reminded me of Bestwick’s origin was his familiar voice and that he reminded viewers that he was new to IndyCar. The thing is – you couldn’t tell it. What you could tell was that the guy had done his homework. He was completely prepared and seemed to know all of the nuances specific to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
When Bestwick was announced as the new TV voice for IndyCar, the phrase I heard repeated regularly was “…he’s a pro”. He lived up to his billing yesterday. Furthermore, I thought that he raised the game of Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever. Most importantly, you got the feeling that Bestwick was actually excited to be doing IndyCar races. Passion has been sorely lacking in the ESPN booth for almost a decade. With Bestwick’s enthusiasm, improved performances by Cheever and Goodyear, along with better production from the network – ESPN gives the impression that they want to put a solid effort behind broadcasting all the races, rather than a half-hearted effort for all races that don’t take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Of course, there had to be a gaffe somewhere. I’m not sure who’s to blame – but on Lap 70 and again after the race, they ran an IndyCar commercial entitled “The One”. It was a very well-done commercial, but there was one slight problem – it was promoting ticket sales for the race we were watching. I thought maybe they were already promoting next year’s race, until I hit the rewind button and listened to the dates. Oops!
Radio Coverage: The TV booth at ESPN wasn’t the only media upgrade that took place in the offseason. The IMS Radio Network has added Paul Page to cover all the Verizon IndyCar races including practices. This weekend, his analyst/driver expert was Pippa Mann.
Talk about instant chemistry – the two of them sounded like lifelong friends having a causal conversation, they got along so well. In reality, those two could not be any more different. Not only is there the obvious difference in gender, but Page grew up in the Midwest, while Pippa hails from the UK. Plus, Paul Page is more than twice her age. But the two hit it off and performed very well together.
I was under the impression that this was simply fill-in work for Pippa who is normally on the Indy Lights broadcast; while Davey Hamilton had a weekend conflict. Later I found out that Pippa Mann will be a regular on the IndyCar side as well, except when she is racing on the track.
Paul Page sounded like a little kid all weekend – and I mean that in a good way. You could tell that he thought he had died and gone to heaven to be back doing radio for the sport he loves. The 2004 season was the last time Paul Page covered the series for ESPN on a regular basis. In that time, an already high level of passion has seemed to increase. He is as smooth as ever. He doesn’t just relive the old days. He has kept up with the series and is very aware of current events.
For those that tweet (sorry Ron Ford), here’s a new twist – the radio broadcast booth actually encourages listeners to participate in the broadcast via Twitter. Paul Page (@PaulPageTV) and Pippa Mann (@PippaMann) both tweet, unlike the former resident of the radio booth that held anyone that used social media in complete disdain.
Verizon Presence: I heard from a couple of friends who attended the race this weekend. They both said that the increased Verizon presence was very noticeable. While they are probably still in the ramp-up stage, it’s encouraging to hear that they are taking the role as title sponsor seriously.
You needn’t look any further than the commercial they ran a few times, where they actually mentioned the responsibility of a title sponsor. Their message is “Verizon and IndyCar – Driving Technology”. In one attempt, they’ve already surpassed any of the previous sponsor’s ads. I also heard about various displays in the Fan Zone and a much bigger effort in hospitality. I’m being cautiously optimistic that Verizon could be the missing piece of the puzzle that IndyCar has needed.
The Drive of the Day: While Simon Pagenaud had a good day as he made up for a poor qualifying effort in moving from a fourteenth starting spot to finish fifth – the drive of the day belonged to Nashville native Josef Newgarden. The third-year driver for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing started dead-last, but moved up steadily and finished ninth. He didn’t accomplish this with pit stop strategy or some other tricks. He advanced the old-fashioned way – he passed cars on the track. I look for this to be a break-out year for Newgarden. I will be very surprised, and a little disappointed, if he does not win a race this season.
Best Interview: Although Helio Castroneves calling Will Power a wanker was priceless, the best interview had to be from the deadpan style of rookie Jack Hawksworth. Eddie Cheever said he sounded like Nigel Mansell. I don’t know about that, but it was very refreshing to hear a total rookie calling out a standout veteran like Will Power for his restart. He did not seem intimidated at all by the surroundings – that is, until it came time to thank his sponsors, which he completely butchered.
Even though we want to see the rookie on the track getting seat time, instead of being interviewed for being out of the race – I think Hawksworth is going to be a source of entertaining soundbites this season.
All in all: It wasn’t the most scintillating of races that I’ve seen, but that’s OK. The crowd looked good, the weather was perfect and the telecast and the race were both enjoyable. Had they run the full 110 laps under yellow and just drove around – it would’ve been a welcomed sight, after the long,cold winter that most of us have had.
This was an appetizer. The anticipation will continue to build at Long Beach in two weeks, before they head to Barber Motorsports Park two weeks after that. Then they head to Indianapolis for a new and different Month of May.
With all of the good things that have happened off the track recently, the Verizon IndyCar Series finally has a lot of momentum. Let’s hope this is just the beginning.