Random Thoughts On Houston

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There are a lot of adjectives you could use to describe the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, but there is one word that you could not possibly use – parade. The Verizon IndyCar Series put on a whale of a show this weekend. Between the craziness of Saturday and the insanity of yesterday, I’m not sure when I’ve seen a more entertaining and unpredictable weekend of street racing in the many years that I have followed this sport.

Non-race fans like to say that we only watch races to see the crashes. On Sunday, the most spectacular sights were the moves being made on-track in the avoidance of crashes.

This weekend had it all; drama, elation, dejection, anger, humiliation, redemption, exhaustion – oh, and a lot of skill on display. As I indicated on Friday, I was not terribly excited about this event heading into the weekend. After Saturday’s race, however – I awoke Sunday morning counting down the hours until it all started back. I seriously doubted that Sunday’s race could match the excitement and intensity of Saturday’s race in the rain. I was wrong.

Although both races had equal intensity, they were totally different types of racing. Saturday’s race was mostly in the rain, but there were periods of dry – which really brought tire strategy into play. Of course, the wet conditions brought about the unexpected – like Scott Dixon hitting a puddle and losing control before hitting the wall ending the day for himself and his teammate Charlie Kimball. Declaring the race a timed race before the start brought even more strategy into play. All in all, eleven of the twenty-three cars suffered some form of damage that had to be repaired overnight, in order to be able to race again the next day

Sunday’s race was run on dry streets, but in hot and humid conditions – much like we expected for both days. Drivers seemed to be driving with unleashed aggression from the drop of the green flag. Like the previous day, cars were banging and bashing all over each other – proving that NASCAR has nothing over IndyCar in the “rubbin’ is racin’” claim.

Near the end of Sunday’s race, we were treated to some of the best racing I’ve ever seen from any series, between Juan Montoya and Jack Hawksworth. Lap after lap, they dueled with Charlie Kimball occasionally inserting himself, as well. I assumed that the veteran Montoya would eventually do away with the inexperienced rookie Hawksworth – but it never happened. Hawksworth gave back everything that Montoya was throwing at him. Hawksworth ended up on the podium, while Montoya eventually settled for seventh.

And by the way, your two winners came from smaller teams. Carlos Huertas won his first race in his rookie year, driving for Dale Coyne. Sunday’s winner wasn’t near as surprising, since Simon Pagenaud has now won his fourth race in the last two seasons and is in contention for the championship (currently fourth). Still, both days saw teams outside of The Big Three come away with victories.

TV Coverage: The last time that Paul Tracy was in the NBCSN booth; I was lukewarm about his presence, at best. This time, he brought his A-game. I’m not sure if it was his pairing with Steve Matchett from the Formula One booth or what, but these two together were golden. It was the candidness without sounding contrived that I’m sure NBC was hoping for when they hired Tracy. In all honesty, it’s probably what ABC/ESPN was looking for out of Eddie Cheever, before he turned into a suit.

They had good pre-race segments on both telecasts as well, but the one with Robin Miller interviewing AJ Foyt was excellent. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Foyt had dropped a vintage “GD” bomb on the air on Saturday. I’m sure IndyCar will fine Foyt for his expletives. They have no choice. But as to whether or not they ever collect it is another matter. They probably have about as much of a chance of collecting a fine, as Arie Luyendyk has of getting the trophy for his win at Texas in 1997.

Pre-Race Ceremonies: I was in and out of the room on Saturday during some of the pre-race show, so I don’t know if NBCSN spared us the pre-race ceremonies. If so, it’s too bad they didn’t on Sunday. Like I said after this year’s Indianapolis 500; there is a time for comedy, but the Invocation is not it. I’ve always followed the rule of thumb that there is nothing as unfunny as a “funny” Invocation. Such was the case with Sunday’s Invocation.

Fortunately for the comic wannabee clergyman, he was immediately followed by one of the worst renditions of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. I’m sure the doctor who performed it is a wonderful physician, but he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. And if you can graduate medical school, can you not learn the correct words to the song? Calling it disgraceful is putting it mildly.

And while I’m making enemies, can someone please ask Michael Young to tone down those pre-race introductions? He does an excellent job on the IMS Radio Network, but he is way over the top with “RACE FANS…ARE YOU READY?” It just grates on every nerve in my body. It’s even worse when you are hearing it at the track.

Marco’s Penalty: Marco Andretti found himself about to go a lap down to Takuma Sato early in Saturday’s race. Marco’s teammate, James Hinchcliffe, was running second to Sato and trying to catch up. Once Sato caught up to Marco, Hinchcliffe was suddenly closing the gap to Sato.

The blue “move-over” flag was brought out and Marco was “ordered” to adhere to it to move over and let the leaders by. When Marco ignored it, the black flag came out and Marco was issued a drive-through penalty, effectively ending his day.

Now, I’ve always been under the impression that the blue flag was more of an advisory flag and was not mandatory. However, Race Control ordered Marco to let them by and he still didn’t budge. On Sunday, Marco Andretti was fined $10,000 and placed on a three-race probation. The fine and probation was not for his perceived blocking for his teammate, but for not obeying a direct order from Race Control.

There are two different issues here. First of all, am I mistaken in thinking that the blue flag is an advisory flag? If I am correct, then Marco simply chose to not follow the advice. But when Race Control ordered the No.25 car to move over and he ignored the directive – that’s when he messed up.

In any sport, rules and directives are not subject to a participant’s interpretation. A participant may not agree with the call, but calls stand. Maybe it was up to Andretti Autosport to lodge an immediate protest, since once the penalty is enforced they can’t take it back. But short of a formal on-the-spot protest, Marco had to do as told. Failure for any participants in any sport to follow the directives of the officials essentially leads to anarchy, and the entire system breaks down.

What Probation?: The Marco Andretti penalty makes me wonder – just how much teeth is in a probation? Marco’s three-race probation went into effect beginning with Sunday’s race. After his altercation with Justin Wilson, I wondered, what if it was serious enough to take the probation to the next level (it wasn’t). The next race is next Sunday at Pocono, not that far from Marco Andretti’s hometown of Nazareth, PA. The race promoter is probably counting on selling a lot of tickets based on Marco Andretti competing in that race. Or, a lot of people have already bought tickets for the same reason.

If Marco Andretti is suspended for the next race – it not only hurts Marco, but the promoter suffers, his sponsor suffers and most of all – race fans suffer. The cut & dry response is “so what?”; but it goes deeper than that. Who suffers the most in the long term? Marco? Snapple? Pocono? Fans? No, in the long run, it’s IndyCar that will suffer the biggest black-eye in the court of public opinion.

The punishment needs to punish Marco only. Sitting him down is not really an option, as I’ve just discussed. How much do you fine a millionaire before it hurts? Fining Jack Hawksworth or Carlos Huertas would hurt them, but would Marco feel it? You’d have to make the fine uniform across the board, not based on their contract or upbringing. I’ll tell you how you do it –with points.

You don’t tell the driver they will run a race but receive no points. If they get no points, they’ll just park the car after a few laps and go home. Instead, you dock them half the points they normally would earn. That way, they race even harder to maximize what few points they get.

We keep hearing about drivers being put on probation, but we never really know what that means – other than next time, we’ll really be mad. This would actually put some teeth into it and give the driver something to think about during the probationary status, without indirectly penalizing so many other parties.

The Punt: Graham Rahal can’t get out of his own way. He is a talented driver, but there is something that just isn’t connecting. During Saturday’s race, we all marveled at the way he had carved his way up through the field. Had the last few laps been run under green, he could have been contending for the win. But shoulda, woulda, coulda – that’s not what happened.

As the field was coming around to take the green flag for a final one-lap shoot-out, Rahal inexplicably punted Tony Kanaan and turned him around on the main straightaway. At the time, Kanaan was running third and Rahal fourth. Kanaan finished thirteenth. Rahal was rightfully penalized for thirty-seconds and was credited with eleventh.

To his credit, Rahal did the right thing and apologized to Kanaan face-to-face immediately afterward. Kanaan showed unbelievable restraint as he sat on the pit wall and just nodded his head. There was no heated discussion or tantrum; no shoving or profanity – just Kanaan sitting there in what you knew was a slow burn. After all, Kanaan was looking at tying his best finish of the season before Rahal had his brain fade.

Shortly afterwards, Rahal took to Twitter to explain that it was a mistake and was certainly not intentional. He went to great lengths to explain how it wasn’t on purpose. As you can imagine, there was a lot of criticism on Twitter about Rahal’s punt. So much so, that his father got into it and laughed at the “experts” who had never set foot in a race car passing judgment.

Here’s the thing – It never crossed my mind that Rahal did that intentionally. No one would have been that blatant if they were actually trying to take someone out. No, it was just a boneheaded move – the latest in a series of boneheaded moves we have seen from the young Rahal, who is now in his seventh year in this series. Graham Rahal should just ignore the Twitter criticism and move forward. He apologized to Kanaan. That’s all he really needed to do. Let the criticism from the press, Twitter and Facebook, and yes – the blogs die down. It will.

But the elder Rahal threw gasoline (E-85?) on the fire, when he chided critics that had never driven a race car. That is such a condescending stance to take with fans – and a good way to alienate and eventually lose them. I never played professional football, but I certainly know when a quarterback makes a bad decision. I am no chef, but I know the difference between an exceptional dining experience and an average one. I can’t sing, but I know the guy singing the National Anthem butchered it.

Claiming that fans don’t know what they’re talking about because they never played the game (or raced a car) is one of the oldest and easiest cop-outs that participants in sports can use.

It’s only natural for a father to defend his son and not hang him out to dry. But Bobby Rahal had no business inserting himself into this discussion. Graham is a big boy and is capable of fighting his own battles. It sort of reinforces the notion that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Hedging Their Bets?: I noticed that the second car of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driven by Luca Filippi was also carrying National Guard on its sidepods. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had grown so tired of Rahal’s results that they wanted to see if their brand could get any better results on a different car.

Filippi out-qualified Rahal on Saturday and was running well before he miscalculated and slapped the wall on the main straightaway and finishing twenty-first. On Sunday, he was running seventh on the last lap before hitting the tire barrier. Filippi was credited with fifteenth on Sunday

Sorry, Helio: When AJ Foyt let loose his tirade on Saturday, he was justified. Takuma Sato never expected Mikhail Aleshin to be there because Aleshin was a lap down. The next day, in the same spot – the situation was not the same.

Although Sato and Helio Castroneves had both been running up front and were running second at the time of their incident, Helio crossed paths with someone that was not a lap down and was trying to take Helio’s position. Sato had no reason to think that a lapped car would be sticking his nose in and trying to pass him. Aleshin did just that and they both paid the consequences with torn up race cars.

Helio was trying to retake the lead from Simon Pagenaud. When he realized he was not able to complete the pass, he darted back into his usual line. The trouble was, Sébastien Bourdais had rightly pulled up to take Helio’s spot in the normal racing line. Helio crashed out from second as the pole-sitter, while Bourdais continued – albeit with a broken front-wing.

In his interview, Helio seemed livid that Bourdais would be there and not use “common sense”. I am a long-time Helio fan. Not only is he one of my favorite current drivers, I would rank him among my all-time favorites. But fan or no fan, Helio was wrong. Had Bourdais been down a lap, Castroneves would have a legitimate beef. But Bourdais was racing for position. Helio has been around long enough to know that Bourdais had every right to be there. Fortunately for Helio, he lost no ground to Will Power throughout the weekend as far as the championship goes.

Power Woes: Speaking of Will Power, what in the world was going on with him this weekend? He seemed to be lost the entire weekend. He qualified eighteenth for both races, while his teammate was on the front row both days. Things went from bad to worse on Saturday until he eventually found the tire barrier and finished fourteenth.

It looked as if he had put his bad luck behind him on Sunday afternoon. He charged from eighteenth to third at one point, but started sliding back. He was lucky to nurse the car home to eleventh. Some of the shots of him interacting with his crew did not convey good body language. For someone that finished so strongly heading into the June break, he needs to regroup quickly – heading into a double-points paying race.

All in All: Neither race was a thing of beauty. Far from it. But both races were highly entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable to watch. There was really something for everyone. If crashes are your thing, there were plenty of those. If you like a race filled with strategy, you had that on Saturday. If you like to see a lot of clean nose-to-tail and side-by-side racing – then Sunday was your day.

Although he was exhausted, Simon Pagenaud seemed elated with his win. Carlos Huertas? Not so much. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more low-key first-time winner in my life. But he was about the only one that was unemotional this weekend. Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves both restrained their anger. I actually saw Jack Hawksworth crack a smile when he finished third on Sunday. Will Power seemed spent, while Charlie Kimball appeared fresh while saying he wanted to race again on Monday. Emotions ran from one end of the spectrum to another. It was that kind of a weekend.

Pocono has its work cut out to top the pleasant surprise that was this past weekend in Houston.

George Phillips

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23 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Houston”

  1. The Twitterati are saying that Graham deliberately punted TK? That’s stupid. I know Graham didn’t exactly use his brain well on that move, but thinking it was anything other than inattention is taking things too far.

    He was just momentarily dumb, not malicious.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Rahal is the fan base’s favorite punching bag right now, so very few heat-of-the-moment reactions on Twitter would surprise me. Such status even has George jabbing a little this morning, taking it to Graham beyond the Kanaan incident (the Guard logos on Filippi’s car were most likely a courtesy to cover up blank sidepods, we’ve seen this many times over the years). Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a Rahal fan.

      I did not see the Rahal-Kanaan incident as inexplicable, and given the number of restart incidents this year, I would think others might be seeing the same. What I saw on Saturday was Kanaan not accelerating quite as fast as the top two cars, an over-eager Rahal (with a faster car than the three in front of him) trying to get the fastest restart possible, and a little gaming going on throughout the field.
      This is not to blame Kanaan, who did nothing wrong, or absolve Rahal, who was deservedly penalized and much more apologetic than his reputation among many fans would suggest. Lest we forget, Rahal also hit Justin Wilson in a restart situation at Long Beach and was taken out of top 10 spots at Long Beach and the Indy road race by restart or near-restart spearing (by Aleshin and Montoya respectively). Rahal’s mistake made far more sense to me than what Castroneves did on Sunday.

    • madtad1 Says:

      As I was watching them go around under yellow, prior to Graham wrecking TK, I noticed there were several times where Graham ran right up to the back of TK and then had to break hard to avoid spearing him. This was not a momentary thing, I even said to my wife, “Watch out, he’s going to wreck Tony!”

      Sadly, about a minute later, it happened. If you dvr’d the race, watch the footage under caution just before the wreck.

  2. Oh yes, regarding the rest of the races: George is right in that neither of them were parades. Both days were unexpectedly tense and dramatic. It was one of those races that was hard to get up and away from for the bathroom or refrigerator.

    If the Houston GP can be this exciting every year, then I’m all for it staying where it is instead of being replaced by an Austin race at COTA. And this from me who’s been wanting to see them do a race at that track ever since it opened.

    • Don’t replace it with COTA, just add COTA. Totally different animal and if Eddie G. keeps his cool, Texas would host a street, road and oval and even I could promote that triple.

      • I’m all for this. I still want a race at COTA, it’s just that there are voices out there who want that *in place of* Houston. I’m not only fine with 3 races in Texas, I think it’d be a great idea. The marketing campaign would even write itself, starting with the “Everything’s bigger in Texas” and going from there.

        Yeah, I’d totally be for this.

  3. Hasn’t finishing under yellow gone the way of vacuum tubes, rotary dial telephones and the “traveling” call in the NBA? I know it’s gentlemanly and traditional and all that, but NASCAR changed the game with their green, white, checker and I think most fans (at least those new to the sport) expect at least an attempt at a racing finish.

    • billytheskink Says:

      To be fair, even under NASCAR rules, I believe Saturday’s race would have ended under the yellow flag. The yellow came out after the final lap had begun.

      • You’re right. I guess I keep thinking back to the 500 and how a great ending made for a memorable race, when it easily could have finished under yellow and be basically forgotten.

        • Phil Kaiser Says:

          There is no such thing as a “forgotten” Indianapolis 500; that’s why it’s been the world’s largest single-day sporting event for over 100 years….

  4. I loved that being able to watch both races this weekend worked out for me and I will thank Nashville’s weather people for that. That was terrific and I got used to the parking lot track fairly quick and thought that from my perch it looked great. However, that doesn’t mean that the series should start looking at doing more parking lot courses.

    I thought that the announcers were the best and I think that PT has found a new calling.

    Foyt is always the best interview and Robin Miller added to the “Oh, shucks” moment.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    The series and the race promoters put on a great show given the conditions. Thank goodness for the clouds on Saturday and breeze on Sunday, made things a little more bearable.

    Interesting marketing strategy by Indycar, they bought a full page ad in today’s Houston Chronicle to promote the Pocono race.

  6. I find it a bit ironic that the stretch of the course where Dario’s career ended provides some (IMO) of the best flat out excitement of the season – long sweeping extremely fast curve followed by the hard breaking zone that dramatically altered then outcome – great race all around.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    A very interesting and entertaining weekend; much better than I expected. I love watching racing in the rain. (That gives me an opportunity to plug one of my favorite books: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein.) Some drivers are very good at tip-toeing around the track and still being fast.

    The invocation and national anthem: Horrible!!!

    I love the color of the 77 car. Even sitting still it fairly screams in your face speed.

    Since Marco is far ahead of Hinchcliffe in points, I think he was simply trying his best to stay on the lead lap and was on fresh tires.. He did not get called for blocking and Sato could have passed him if he had the speed.

    I think Mr. Rahal and Mr. Foyt and anyone else taken to task in this column for their comments probably don’t worry about whether George approves of what they say. Much ado about nothing.

    Twitterati: “Multiple silly or foolish persons” (Oxford Dictionary)

    I really like the way Sato attacks a course, but sheesh, if he can’t learn to do it without tearing up equipment he will soon be out of a job in IndyCar or any other racing series except demo derbys.

    Fortunately, finishing on the yellow has not yet gone the way of vacuum tubes, rotary dial phones, etc.

  8. Carburetor Says:

    George–I agree that both races were wildly entertaining. I’ve posted here before about my displeasure with adding Paul Tracy to the booth, but in all fairness I must say this weekend he did an excellent job. I really enjoyed the ‘technical’ explanations of what was happening with the cars as they bumped along the course and slapped the walls. His interaction with Matchett was excellent. Watching Sunday’s race, I began to wonder if Marco Andretti will ever see the winner’s circle again….

  9. Overall I enjoyed the races more than I expected. The only thing I didn’t particularly like were the winners. I love underdog success, but not from two ride buyers and Pagenaud. Saturday’s race was the better race to me because it was more competitive up front and because we saw something we’ve never seen before. A true Indycar wet weather race! Firestone brought a new rain tire, and it seemed to preform well. Now that they have a true wet tire, they need to get an intermediate tire, although to be fair the wet tire seemed to do okay as the rain stopped.

    The racing Sunday was very good, but up front it got pretty spread out. I think it would have been great had Helio not crashed out, as he may have had a better shot at taking the fight to Sam’s team.

    I don’t really agree with Marco’s penalty, though if there really were team orders going on to block Sato, that’s a different story. Not instantly listening to race control in that situation is pretty standard, and it’s not like he didn’t pull in after a few laps anyways. So I don’t see a need for a fine, though that fine was very, very low. I just don’t want to see FIA style fines in Indycar.

    I don’t really like timed races and I wish Indycar had a GWC because then we wouldn’t have had a Hertas win, but there may need to be some shortening of races when rain hits since it slows the laptimes way down. Some sort of middle ground (IE: Longer time limit, or just cut off laps) would be appropriate. I think it has to be a judgement call each time based on daylight and TV window. I certainly prefer the NASCAR model where they make every possible effort to get the race in.

    Final thought about Houston was why did it have a few of those chicanes? It’s a parking lot track, and some of the chicanes took out passing zones/added wrecking zones. Maybe next year that can be fixed?

  10. Jimmy Gray Says:

    I had blocked that horrible invocation and National Anthem from mind until you reminded me. Not only was the invocation not funny but it came across as a painful attempt at sponsor plugging and that is really not what I want to hear as a pre-race plea for safety. The racing was fast, fierce, and fabulous. All the incidents were normal strret racing issues in my opinion, some caused by the course, most caused by over aggression or being boneheaded. It was a good show regardless if my favorite did poorly or fantastic. I say bring on the next one!

  11. Steve Matchett is the best.

    I think Helio should look to Mr. Hawksworth to see how to properly defend a position instead of the blocking he always does.

    I do not see how you can justify ordering Marco to pull over. He is racing to stay on the lead lap. If the leader is faster, pass him! I understand the blue flag in F1, the cars are different and the likelihood of a safty car period is low. In IndyCar a car about to go a lap down can still win the race. The cars are basically the same and cautions happen all too frequently.

    The Marco and Aleshin incidents are more easily avoidable if you throw all lapped cars behind the leaders on restarts and offer them the lucky dog. While I really do not want this, it sure beats the BS Marco had to deal with. Where did Marco race 1 finish again?

    • Phil Kaiser Says:

      I guess nobody heard the radio transmission from Hinch’s crewchief to Hinch when he said something to the effect of “you’re five seconds back, but Marco’s in front of Sato and will help out.” THAT’S why he was told to pull over, because he had purposefully slowed Sato down so the five second gap back to Hinch became a half-second gap. Do some research before sticking up for an Andretti guys! Once you find the truth it’s usually the Andretti’s fault, be it overdriving a car, punting someone out of the way, holding up someone for a teammate… they’ve been doing it since the early ’60s!

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    A.J………..”A bunch of GD idiots out there!” Classic!

    • Ballyhoo Says:

      That was a show stopper, wasn’t it. I also enjoyed AJ’s interview with Robin Miller on the pre-race show on Sunday.

      I hadn’t figurered that I would enjoy Houston as much as I did.

  13. Great article George. I drove down from North Texas to enjoy the races. I can say that Sunday was some of the most aggressive racing I have ever seen. It was like they though this was NASCAR in the 80’s, just a bunch of Good Ol’ Boys banging on each other. The Sunday Chaplin should be fired. That was a disgrace. Thank you as always.

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