Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg

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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.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg”

  1. Looks like Foyt worked their tails off this past winter and the results are paying off. The broadcast was excellent and I also liked seeing RHR up front.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Except for the bizarre restart I found all aspects of the race very enjoyable.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Given what Power said about his actions on the restart, I thnk he should have been penalized. Of course, it was not likely that would happen with the Verizon CEO in attendance, When you have a sponsor being both the title sponsor and a car sponsor, there will always be the possibility of a conflict of interests.

  3. Power flat out misspoke (and pretty ridiculously at that) when he claimed the green came out early before he hit the first cone/line. If you have the race on DVR, take a good look at the slo-mo replay from the camera at T14 looking up the front straight. If you can, pause it and use your forward frame button…you will see that Power, HCN, and RHR are clearly ahead of the first cone and line when the green flies, and Hawksworth was already screwed up. Hawksworth made a typical rookie St. Pete mistake by not making sure he was either left or right of the runway paint for the restart….he was on top of it.

    • The restart also struck me as a fracas that was kind of touched off by Power not going when the rest of the field thought he would (Power likely took the declarations of penalties for anybody start-jumping to heart, which either led to him waiting a half second longer than he should have, or just led to everybody else jumping the gun), but definitely exacerbated by some guys back in the pack coming off of Turn 14 and just spiking the throttle. Power may or may not have hesitated for an instant, but he definitely didn’t brake check the field. If he had, we’d have had guys in the top-5 running into each other. Didn’t happen. Instead, we had guys back in the back getting overzealous. That’s possibly on IndyCar for changing the restart policy (I’m actually in favor of what Walker says is the new policy, over double files…I’ve always thought that, too) and not making sure that EVERY driver knows when the green is going to fly, but it’s definitely not on Will.

    • I just re-watched the restart on YouTube, Zapruder-style, and noticed two things:

      1) Power did, in fact, hit the gas the instant he hit the first cone line. If the instruction was “thou shalt not accelerate before the zone”, then he did exactly what he was supposed to, regardless of when the green came out. Along with that, if Power had done anything more than lift off the gas a few percentage points worth of throttle, Helio would have hit the back of Power, as Helio was right on Power’s gearbox from the exit of Turn 14. If Power did, in fact decelerate (note, I did not say “brake”, because it’s obvious that Will did not apply the brake), it was only by 1-2 MPH, at the most.

      2) The green flag appears to have only been on screen for a few frames by the time Hawksworth is spinning sideways. He may have picked up the throttle the exact millisecond that the green was thrown, but it’s more likely that his spotter told him to gas it a half beat too early. Either way, that part of the incident was not touched off by Power. We can definitely put the conspiracy stuff (namely, Norris McDonald’s demolition piece today) to rest right now.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        I read Norris’ column as I usually do, but I based my comment on what Will Power said after the race when he was asked about what he did on the restart and why.

  4. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    I listened to the radio broadcast and Page mentions in the drivers’ meeting it was clearly noted that Race Control would be strongly enforcing penalties for violating (going early) of the acceleration zones. I haven’t seen the video yet, but I’m sure he was being extra cautious about going.

    • dzgroundedeffects Says:

      IF the accel zone was also moved, I can easily see the confusion/hesitance by Power.

    • dzgroundedeffects Says:

      I also found the radio broadcast to be just OK. Pippa was a bright spot who seemed very well prepared, professional, and extremely easy on the ears. I’d give her an ‘A’. Page had a few minor bobbles rating a ‘B’ and the likewise for Query and Jaynes, but the production seemed totally disjointed. People talking over each other, open mics, or nobody at all when thrown to. It was as if there was either remote equipment problems or production board problems or both.

      A rough start but Page and Pippa were certainly welcome additions to the radio coverage. Now I’ll have a good decision to make apparently between listening to the radio live or the TV booth.

  5. How about Marco Andretti referring to his car as “junk” and limping along keeping his helmet on for a while, probably thinking about what he was going to say once a mic was jammed in his face taking his incident surprisingly well, almost in an unMarco like fashion. I was expecting him to go off. Calling is car “junk” was classic. That takes some stones. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Much as I like the NBCSN broadcast crew, in a race with multiple chances to comment on pace car speed and passing the pace car, how could you want anyone but Scott Goodyear behind the microphone? Bestwick-Goodyear-Cheever did seem to have a lot more chemistry than the Reid-led booths and the only time they came across as wholly unprepared was during the row-by-row rundown of the starting lineup during the pace laps.

    Whether he actually used the brake pedal or not, Power gamed the restart and he knows it. You could probably count on one elbow the number of drivers in the series who won’t try to game a restart when they are in the lead, some do it more egregiously than others. The upset Castroneves caused an even worse accordion at Texas last year that was somehow contact free and somehow not waved off.

    The thing I really did like about the double-file restarts was that they often punished a brake-checking leader, when the 2nd place driver decided not to join restart gaming. See Toronto last year, where Bourdais took advantage of Dixon’s brake check and grabbed the lead. I stood up and applauded in my living room for that, and I rarely root for Bourdais.

    • I also enjoyed the hilarity of Goodyear chastising the pace car driver (Lone Star JR, I’m pretty sure, as he was back in 1995, if memory serves) for going to slow on the restart. I didn’t notice the pace car doing anything that it normally doesn’t, but I guess I’m not as attuned to such things as Scott is…

  7. Had to work but listened to a bit on the radio and watched replays. So my knowledge of the race is limited but that never stopped me from complaining…

    I don’t understand why every start and restart in this series is so screwed up. It makes it look (Benny Hill-music) amateurish and often results in drivers getting knocked out of the race. And even though the drivers seemed incapable or unwilling to complete a double-wide restart last year, I think it added excitement to the races that was missing yesterday.

    Listened to Page/Pippa and also thought it was a bit rough. It seems like the sponsors of cars should get more mention (Nascar) than they did, but maybe I wasn’t paying attention enough.

    It was a beautiful venue. Next.

  8. If Power wasn’t driving a Penske and sponsored by Verizon he’d have been penalized back to the Stone Age.

    Enjoyed AJ saying that he now has a driver who wants to “race” not a driver who wants a “ride”. Too few of them methinks.

  9. I watched the race with a lot of anticipation for several reasons.
    The new experience for me this race, as you know George, was having the name of a the company I work with on one of the cars.
    Through twitter and Facebook I was connected to many other associates who were following the race, many watching an IndyCar race for the first time.
    There was a lot of excitement when ABC showed an in car view as Jack Hawksworth passed Juan Pablo Montoya down the straightaway.
    There was also a lot of disappointment when the restart crash took him out. That did, however, provide for a good tight shot as he drive the car into the pits and there was a tight shot of the car in the pits as the telecast went to commercial.
    He did struggle a bit in the subsequent interview when it came time to thank all his sponsors, but he did get them in, at least the one I really cared about.
    Overall, it was a good race, not the best, but a good start to a season that looks like it will be very entertaining and a good building season for IndyCar.

  10. There is no such thing as a bad race. And, when Will Power wins, it just cements a glorious day. Perfection! That’s 4 wins in the last 6 races, with a lot more to come.

  11. Ballyhoo Says:

    There was much more of a spark in the broadcast team and Bestwick is the catalyst. I appreciated that ABC did a promo a couple of times for the LB race, which NBCSN is broadcasting. I enjoyed the interview with Sato and Foyt too, especially with AJ being up front and vocal about his support for his driver.
    Verizon also gets my vote of confidence. Great commercial for the series and for the role technology plays. Now, I have to become better acquainted with their IndyCar app. I am sorry I missed the text Sunday offering me a chance to sit in on one of the team meetings before the race.

  12. I loved the atanding start and the double file restarts.

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