Random Thoughts On Pocono

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What started out as a race of strategy and little action, developed into quite a race in the latter stages. The Pocono IndyCar 500 ran a total of 159 laps before Graham Rahal spun and brought out the only yellow of the afternoon. While Will Power and Juan Montoya seemed content to play the fuel mileage game, Tony Kanaan wanted to run up front. Kanaan led the most laps of the day, but a botched fuel strategy backfired allowing Montoya and Helio Castroneves to coast to a Penske one-two victory.

Some will say that this was a boring race. I disagree, but watching strategy play out is as interesting to me as side-by-side racing. It is a very unique situation that has seen the three ovals for this year run so many green-flag laps at the first. Indianapolis and Pocono both ran beyond the 3/4 mark before the first caution, while Texas went beyond halfway before the yellow flag waved. This allows the field to really spread out. To casual fans of the sport, this is boring. To those that understand the nuances of the sport – it is all part of racing. It’s like appreciating a no-hitter in baseball, compared to a barrage of home-runs.

Personally, I liked this race. To those that say I’m just a flag-waver for the series; you obviously don’t read everything I write. The race had strategy – both good and bad, excellent racing, controversy, a fair amount of drama and a lot for fans to talk about afterwards. My only complaint was with all the green-flag racing, it was over too quickly. With only one caution period, it was the fastest 500-mile race in history.

TV Coverage: I’ve gotten to where I appreciate Leigh Diffey’s exuberance and excitement (read: yelling); but for my taste – I much prefer the dulcet tones of Bob Varsha calling a race. We were fortunate enough to get treated to Varsha calling yesterday’s race. Although he’s been away from these type cars for a while, his delivery was absolutely flawless. He was what we have grown to know over the years watching Formula One. If I had my way, he would be in the booth for every race – he’s that good.

I also really liked the segment that Robin Miller did regarding the driver’s grading themselves. Some say they found it awkward, but that’s what I liked about it. The drivers were open, honest and candid. There was no polished, rehearsed corporate spin – just drivers being asked for their opinion.

Once again, I was very impressed with Paul Tracy’s insight and candor. This is the Paul Tracy that I really like. It’s when he tries to become the character he has created that I call “Outrageous PT”, that I find him hard to take. But for the past two races, he has brought a lot to the broadcast booth. He would get my vote as a permanent fixture.

The pit-reporters all did a good job yesterday, but I still think Jon Beekhuis has more to offer in the booth. I feel like his talents are wasted in the pits.

Pre-Race Ceremonies: Unlike last week at Houston, the pre-race ceremonies were good and tasteful. Rather than trying to be amusing with the invocation as a local clergyman did at Houston, yesterday’s invocation featured Bob Hills, Director of IndyCar Ministry. He played it straight and it worked.

Ditto for the young lady from the US Coast Guard that sang the National Anthem. She wasn’t totally brimming with talent and she may have missed a note or two, but she played it straight without trying to stylize it as so many alleged artists try to these days. In my opinion, that is not a song that needs to be trifled with – especially on Independence Day weekend. Good job by both.

Hawksworth Crash: It sounds as if building a new tub for the Iowa race is the least of the problems stemming from the Jack Hawksworth incident during practice on Saturday. As it turned out, Hawksworth withstood around 100 g-forces in his crash. Forces like that take their toll on a body. Although Hawksworth walked away with some assistance, he was later taken to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a myocardial contusion, which is essentially a bruised heart.

I’m no doctor, but that sounds serious. A quick Google-search shows that it can be serious, but a mild case (which Hawksworth’s was) usually sees a complete recovery, which is good news. Still, I wouldn’t be absolutely shocked if Hawksworth sat out Saturday’s race in Iowa. I wouldn’t blame him either. A chance to rest up and completely heal for the rest of his life is much more important than Rookie of the Year. Get well soon, Jack!

RHR Woes: Ryan Hunter-Reay’s post-Indianapolis meltdown continued this weekend. It became apparent early on that there would be no triple-crown winner this year. Hunter-Reay was having a decent run when his left-front suspension failed. He returned to the track nineteen laps down and rode around picking up points, hoping it would be a day of heavy attrition for his competitors. It wasn’t. Still, Hunter-Reay finished eighteenth and picked up a few valuable points in the double-points race. He has now tumbled to fifth in points, after leading the points leaving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He is lucky to be only fifty-nine points down to Power and Castroneves after this early summer free-fall.

Kanaan Upset: Tony Kanaan had a fast car yesterday – a very fast car. He started eighth, but moved up a couple of spots on the opening lap. He methodically worked his way towards the front before passing Will Power for the lead on Lap 50. Throughout most of the next hundred laps, Kanaan was either in-front or near the front. The only chink in his armor was that he was pitting about two to three laps sooner than his fellow front-runners. Kanaan led seventy-four laps, more than anyone else. He also led as late as Lap 196. How did he finish eleventh?

The answer to that is a botched fuel strategy – a gamble that backfired. Kanaan was running third when Graham Rahal brought out the only yellow at Lap 159. Kanaan was on the same fuel strategy as front-runners Will Power and Juan Montoya. When the yellow came out, Kanaan was brought in for fuel and tires – although it was very early. Power and Montoya stayed out. I thought at the time that it was a strange call, but I figured they know a lot more than I do. Just before the green flag came out, they brought him in again to top off. That, I thought, was a good move.

The general logic is that yellows breed yellows. Although they had run 159 laps with no caution, Kanaan’s No.10 team was betting on at least one more caution so they would have enough fuel to last to the end. It didn’t happen. Had Kanaan stayed on the same strategy with Team Penske, he would have been running with them at the end. He may not have won, but he probably would have at least ended up on the podium. As it was, Kanaan finished eleventh – the last car on the lead lap.

Had Kanaan been languishing in mid-pack, I could see why they would gamble. But he had led the most laps all day. And what is that old rule in racing? When in doubt, do as the leaders do. Montoya and Power were leading Kanaan at the time, and they stayed out. Montoya won the race. Power would have been right there had it not been for his drive-through penalty. Kanaan would have been right there had his team not out-smarted themselves.

I’ve heard people this season say that Tony Kanaan needs to win in order to keep Chip Ganassi happy. Some wonder how long Ganassi will put up with Kanaan not winning. Maybe it’s the other way around. Perhaps Ganassi needs to worry about keeping Tony Kanaan happy. If you noticed, Kanaan did not look too happy as he and his wife, Lauren, sped away on a scooter. I don’t blame him. He probably knew that if a microphone were shoved in his face, he would say something he would probably regret later. After their needless gamble yesterday, I’d say that Target Chip Ganassi Racing owes Tony Kanaan an apology.

The Interview: One of the more bizarre interviews I’ve seen in the Verizon IndyCar Series took place Sunday after the race. Will Power was being shown the replay where he blatantly kept coming over (…and over…and over) onto teammate Helio Castroneves. Power was subsequently issued a drive-through penalty for his actions, and rightfully so. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought that was a legitimate move.

After Power watched the replay, he half-heartedly joked that Helio was his teammate. Power also acknowledged that it was another opportunity lost due to his continued infractions.

But then, things got weird. Power got a sort of crazed look in his eyes when he said “I’m sure the commentators in the booth, Townsend (Bell) and friends, gave me a good rap – as they always do.” He then gave Jon Beekhuis sort of a double F-you look, that looked almost like he was about to morph into Mr. Hyde. I haven’t seen that look on Power’s face since he gave Brian Barnhart the double-bird salute at New Hampshire in 2011. If one didn’t know better, one might assume from that interview that Mr. Power might have a screw loose somewhere.

It didn’t take the guys in the booth long to fire back. Bell and Tracy seemed to be shocked that Power would be blaming them simply for calling it as they see it. After the commercial break, NBCSN produced a graphic showing five drive-through penalties Power has been issued starting with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May. Bob Varsha chimed in with “It is what it is, dude”.

The Return: Consider Juan Montoya’s return to open-wheel racing now complete. Some, myself included, had wondered if this style of racing had passed Montoya by. I was not sold that this was a good move by Team Penske. I had seen more reasons to not hire Montoya than to bring him on board. As usual, I was wrong.

The results didn’t come immediately for Montoya. The first few races of the season, I told myself that I was right – that this would be a short-lived experiment, with dismal results. But with each race, Montoya has been showing marked improvement.

I am now on the Montoya bandwagon. I was never a Montoya fan in his CART days, although I did acknowledge his greatness. I just didn’t care for him. But this is an older, wiser and more mature version of that Montoya of 1999. He has made a believer out of me.

The Crowd: I don’t know if Pocono track president Brandon Igdalsky’s threat brought a big walk-up crowd or it was the beautiful weather or what, but yesterday’s crowd looked better than what I was expecting. Were the stands full? No, and the crowd was visibly smaller than last year’s crowd. But one of either three things happened; there was either a late walk-up crowd, Brandon Igdalsky was exaggerating the situation in some sort of posturing or NBCSN did an excellent job with their crowd shots in making a small crowd look larger than it actually was. Maybe it was a combination of all three.

All in All: This event may have been lacking a lot of action in the first three-fourths of the race, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t compelling. Based on how his season has gone, you somehow had the feeling that Tony Kanaan was not going to win this race, no matter how many laps he led. I was also wondering if the bad luck that plagued Helio Castroneves throughout the Houston double-header had followed him east. In the end, Kanaan faltered – through no fault of his own, Castroneves did well and Will Power self-destructed, while Juan Montoya earned his first victory as a member of Team Penske. I’m not sure how many would have predicted that in July, Juan Montoya would have more victories than all of Chip Ganassi Racing – his former employer.

With Power’s continued infractions, this is a very interesting championship to follow. He is now tied with teammate Helio Castroneves for the lead. Simon Pagenaud has vaulted to third and is a mere forty-four points behind the two Penske drivers. Juan Montoya is now a bona fide championship conteneder, having moved into fourth place at fifty-five points out. Ryan Hunter-Reay is the last true contender at this point in fifth place and fifty-nine points back. Any of these drivers could catch fire or lose their composure and change the complexion very quickly.

As for Pocono, the crowd was obviously not where anyone wants it. But this is a process. It takes time. I’ve never been to Pocono, but it is on my short list of tracks I want to visit in the next few years – along with Road America, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and Iowa. As a racing venue, it looks phenomenal. The setting, the history and the track itself all make it a great racing destination. I hope all parties will do whatever they can to keep this special race on the schedule.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Pocono”

  1. Nat Krieger Says:

    you missed what might have been the bigger story…there was one other driver that gambled on fuel strategy along with Kanaan… Josef Newgarden. Another yellow and Newgarden and Kanaan would have been 1-2 with Newgarden coming back from qualifying last..

    A Newgaden win would have been more important to the future of INDYCAR than a Montoya win. Montoya winning will get more press today but Newgarden is the future face of this series… Both Graham and Marco have the names but have not shown the talent, Newgarden is the real deal….

  2. In a sentence the Pocono IndyCar 500 was hours of boredom interspersed with moments of excitement. At least 2 or 3 laps had me on the edge of my seat. The rest of the race was a matter of watching 21 cars getting lost on a 2.5 mile track. It is enthralling watching cars capable of 220 trying to see how slow they could go and stay up front and save fuel. The high average speed was a result of 158 consecutive green flag laps. The drivers and cars were so under performing that it was a wonder the drivers didn’t fall asleep (maybe that’s what happened to Graham) like most of the viewers. Perhaps IndyCar should once again consider a debris cautions like the taxi cab series – speaking of which how about the 43 winning exactly 30 years after the King’s last win (coincidence???); I’m surprised they didn’t exhume old Ronny and prop him up there in the winner circle.

    Will Power will be having surgery on Tuesday to replace the toes he’s shot off this season. He could barely keep a straight face trying to explain that he was just trying to get out of Helio’s way by forcing him off the course. The Captain has to be getting tired of this act.

    Congrats to JPM, now that he’s back in the groove look for him to make a charge in the standings.

  3. Phil Kaiser Says:

    I don’t know if The Captain is aware of Power’s faults; did you see his interview after the race? He sounded and looked befuddled, something I’ve never seen The Captain look like in the 40 years I have watched IndyCar racing. He is over 80 years old now, perhaps age is finally catching up with him. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy, but he seemed clueless yesterday after the race….

  4. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    Race: Found myself engaged all race in the developing lead pack strategies as well as understanding that speed history was in the making. Helpful insights by Bell and PT aided in following these stories. Personally I was quite happy with the race via TV and I’m not sure what will make Indycar fans happy at this point if they didn’t see how good the racing actually was.

    Montoya: Running an intelligent, disciplined race, and then maintaining the lead at full race pace without a front wing end fence (due to his only miscalculation of the day)? That takes more than a little bit of mental and physical skill.

    PT: He called Montoya’s race strategy from the start, correctly (in my view) nailed Willy P’s block party on Helio, coupled with these (and other great insights without being ‘over the top/mouthshooter’ during his stint in the booth thus far) I would love for he and Bell and Varsha to stay as the 3 booth amigos for the season and even next year.

    Pocono: I know they’ve stated they were ‘unhappy’ with this year’s turnout. I made it to last year’s race from 9 hours away. Planned on it but couldn’t do it at the last minute, due to a funeral this year. I will be disheartened if Indycar cannot continue here. Historic, unique, Indycar ovals not owned by ISC are nearly extinct. Simply, this track has all the hallmarks of being a ‘must-have’ on the schedule. The problem is Indycar isn’t a ‘must-have’ on many venues’ schedules.

    I assume I’m in the minority of those who found the race to be interesting and engaging, which leads to this for the umpteenth (cubed) time of stating..

    Figure out what more people want to see or (if you’re totally satisfied with your product) figure out a better way to present it that interests and attracts a vastly wider live and TV audience.

  5. George, I agree with your assessment of the race, and about Jack Hawksworth’s condition.
    I have the feeling the season champion will be either JPM or Simon Pagenaud. Power is starting to actually scare me. Something is not right with him. Helio is just a bit too emotional. Penske has his new lead driver for the next few years.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Will Power, the Mark Eaton of Indycar…

  7. Great job picking JPM. Short ovals were his strength in his CART days. Will he go back-to-back?

  8. I thought the race was pretty dull. It was cool to see Juan Pablo Montoya win, but other than that not a lot happened on track. Most of the race was just spent saving fuel. I don’t want phantom yellows or senseless wrecks but I really think the long green runs we’ve seen on ovals are less than ideal. The most entertaining moment of the race was when Power started attacking the broadcast, which was very strange. I was glad to hear Varsha and Tracy, the made the race at least watchable. Would be nice to have Varsha and Machett together for a race with PT. That would be excellent broadcasting to hear.

  9. I enjoyed the race and if it were two hours away I would have been there. However, there is a very large population close by and I still don’t understang why Brandon Igdalsky can’t tap into it.

    • I do live 2 hours away and the promotion in and around NYC appeared to be non-exsistant. Driving to the track we saw a billboard for the Pocono NASCAR race but nothing for INDYCAR. The closest I saw to promotion was Ed Carpenter and Scott Dixon at the Nathans Hot Dog eating contest on the 4th..

      Currently this is the only INDYCAR race in the North East US. and easily reachable to a potential audience of MILLIONS… The product is great the promotion is lacking…

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    For those who feel the need here and elsewhere to express that you found the race boring or dull I will say this: You are of course entitled to express your opinion. Having said that, please consider the milliions of dollars and countless hours spent by everyone involved in the IndyCar series. You, on the other hand, have invested in your cable bill, perhaps a 6- pack, and are likely sitting on your couch thinking “entertain me, entertain me”.

    I have attended open wheel races at many venues ranging from the local dirt tracks to Indy and Milwaukee since 1950. Many were boring, many were not. I always tried to find something to like.
    It is what it is.

    IMHO, it is a very slippery slope when thoughts of breaking up long green runs are considered simply to make races more entertaining on TV.

    I can’t resist adding that one yellow at Daytona yesterday involved 29 cars. Now that’s exciting!

  11. Matt B. (Dayton, OH) Says:

    As I’ve stated here before, I couldn’t agree with you more regarding Jon Beekhuis. His race strategy comments alone make his presence in the booth worthwhile. Seems like he’s always answering the question I just asked myself! Super intelligent, insightful, articulate, is a good guy, and pleasant to listen to.

  12. George, keep this place on your list. We made the trip up from Florida, in conjunction with a Niagara Falls trip my wife always wanted to do. What a fantastic location! The trip to and from the track is breathtaking! Heck, they even have free parking!

    I heard Igdalsky interviewed, and he said he spent a lot of money on promotions…not sure what he did.

    I don’t know if they showed it on TV, but they had about 10 of the old cars take some laps around the track, some from the 60’s, 80’s, etc. That was neat to see.

    By the way, I also agree on Beekhuis. I loved him in the booth, and hope we get to see him there again. His talent is wasted in the pits.

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