Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio

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Two weeks ago, I summed up the Toronto weekend with one word – exhausting. If I am to sum up yesterday’s win by Scott Dixon at Mid-Ohio in one word, that word would be – incredible. The fact that Dixon won a Verizon IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course isn’t incredible. After all, he had won two of the past three and four of the last seven going into the weekend – so he obviously knew his way around the place. But it’s the way he won yesterday’s race that makes this one so special.

After a spin in wet weather during qualifying, Scott Dixon had to start dead last yesterday on a track where passing is very difficult, to say the least. Sure, a timely yellow allowed the race to come to him – but that’s what separates great teams from good teams – they make the most out of every opportunity handed to them.

When Ryan Hunter-Reay spun on Lap 36, almost the entire field pitted – except for Scott Dixon. Due to their poor starting position, Dixon and race-strategist Mike Hull were forced to gamble – trading a full load of fuel for track position. Dixon led at the restart, but you figured his time was limited up front – at least I did. Surprisingly, he was able to set a quick pace and still save fuel. Once Dixon reassumed the lead after the final round of pit stops, the inevitable seemed incredible.

As good as Dixon is at Mid-Ohio, and other tracks for that matter, I never really gave him a prayer for even a top-five – much less a victory. Not at that track, when passing opportunities are so limited. But Dixon pulled it off, showing that not only is he one of the best in the business – but so is Mike Hull. In case you needed any further proof, Mike Hull showed that he is one of the cagiest minds in the paddock. Chip Ganassi knows this. That’s why he quickly yielded the floor to Hull during the post-race interview.

I’ve always enjoyed watching races at Mid-Ohio, although they generally aren’t very exciting. Lately, they’ve not been exciting at all. Even though yesterday’s race didn’t provide much edge-of-your-seat excitement; there were many wheel-to-wheel battles for position that could have led to disaster, but instead showcased the skill of the drivers involved to not lead to a crash. Then, there was Dixon’s drive. It was worth tuning in just to witness one of the most incredible drives to the front I’ve seen in quite a while. It was made even more incredible by the fact that he ran out of fuel just three-hundred yards past the finish line.

TV Coverage: Never in a million years did I ever think I would say this, but I missed Paul Tracy. As little as I cared for him throughout his driving career, I’ve become a big fan of his as a broadcaster. After him being in the booth for the past few races, his presence was missed this weekend. I enjoy David Hobbs on Formula One broadcasts, but not as much on IndyCar telecasts. I will say this – he did a much better job yesterday than he did at Iowa, when he seemed out of his element and appeared to have not done his homework. Except for continuing to say Castronevz for Helio’s last name, I had no issues with Dobbs – I just think I would have preferred PT in the booth.

I was also not thrilled to see Marty Snider return to the pits at the expense of Jon Beekhuis. Kelli Stavast seems to be getting more comfortable in this role and provided a good segment on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Graham Rahal out on maneuvers with the National Guard.

Finally, a Shout-Out: If you are a regular listener to Trackside, you’ve no doubt heard Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee practically beg winners of the ride in the Honda two-seater to start each race, to give them a shout-out. I’m not sure how long they’ve been asking for it, but I’d say it has been at least three years, maybe more.

Yesterday, they finally got their wish. The winner was a gentleman from Indianapolis. As they interviewed him in the car, he said he wanted to say hi to his wife and kids, and also to Curt and Kevin. I have an idea, he might get a little more airtime when they host their show tonight from 7-9 EDT.

Heartbreak for Newgarden: For those that don’t think that racing is a team sport, you needn’t look any further for proof than the last pit stop of the day for Josef Newgarden. No one controlled their own destiny more than Newgarden. He was fast all day. In the early stages, he was the only one to keep pace with Sébastien Bourdais. Then when Dixon was out front, Newgarden was right there with him. His team, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, knew that Dixon was trying to save fuel, so their strategy was to force Dixon to run faster than he wanted to and theoretically run him out of fuel.

We’ll never know if it would have worked. Dixon did have to pit on Lap 62, and Newgarden assumed the lead. For three laps, he checked out. Newgarden was driving a picture-perfect race – until he pitted on Lap 65. That’s where Newgarden’s dream of getting that elusive first win, turned into a nightmare.

At first glance, it appeared the right-rear tire-changer had stumbled and gotten himself tangled up in the air-hose. Newgarden’s car sat for what seemed like an eternity before the pit-stop was completed. Even after all the pit-stops cycled through, he had gone from first to sixth. It got worse.

A closer look revealed that the air-hose had been left out, forcing Newgarden to either run over it or maneuver around it, which would have put his car too far out from the fuel tank. Running over it caused the tension that jerked the tire-changer down. It also caused a drive-through penalty for running over pit equipment. Newgarden’s brilliant day was done. He finished twelfth.

The question is; why was the hose left out there in the first place? Is that not part of the duties of every crewmember, to make sure that there is nothing to impede their driver’s path?

I’ve read several say that explains the difference between the Penske’s and Ganassi’s of the world compared to everyone else. I understand that money and resources attracts the top talent – not just in drivers, but with crewmembers. But do you have to be paid top-dollar, before you won’t overlook the little things? It’s generally the little things that make the difference in success and failure – whether we’re talking racing, football or the business world. I’m a big fan of Sarah Fisher and her racing team, but what happened with that air-hose yesterday is inexcusable

To Newgarden’s credit, he was all class in his post-race interview. He blamed no one and seemingly laughed it off as one of those things that just happen. But you know the Nashville native was crushed on the inside, to see a podium finish and possible win snatched away due to someone’s bungling and incompetence. Newgarden is a free-agent after this season. If any seats open up, it’s things like what happened yesterday that may force Newgarden to jump from the small team that gave him his start. I’d like to see him stay at SFHR, but I couldn’t blame him if he left.

New Month for Kanaan: Tony Kanaan had a July to remember. Although he finished eleventh at Pocono, he ran up front all day before his team took a foolish gamble that backfired. Still, he proved to himself, his new employer and the fans that he was still to be considered one of the very best. He backed that up with three straight podium finishes to close out July.

Well, now it’s August. Kanaan was cautiously optimistic for yesterday’s race. He felt his third place qualifying result may have been artificially inflated due to the rain on Saturday. He felt his car was not very good in the dry conditions for Sunday. It didn’t matter. Kanaan was out after one turn. He may or may not have been taken out by Josef Newgarden. He may or may not have gotten into the curbing. Regardless, his spin triggered an opening lap melee that also took out Marco Andretti.

Now that his teammate, Scott Dixon, has won this season – I would personally like to see Kanaan get a win for his new employer also. If not, I hope he can put together a string like he had in July for the final three races.

Helio’s Implosion: I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve seen Helio Castroneves leading the points late in the season, only to suffer a late season implosion. If yesterday is any indication, we may be seeing another one unfold. That’s not always a knock on Helio or his mental toughness. At times, his team has let him down. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than bad luck.

Last season, his gearbox failed him twice in two days at the double-header in Houston. Yesterday, a throttle sensor went bad just as his engine was fired prior to the race. Castroneves was finally able to join the race, albeit four laps down. Little attrition in the race led to a nineteenth-place finish. All things considered, Helio is very lucky to be only four points out of the points lead, behind new leader Will Power.

The Unwanted Championship: It still seems as if this is a championship that nobody wants. Going into the weekend, I said that although many drivers were still mathematically alive – only four drivers had a real shot to win the championship; Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud. That’s still the case, but none of the four drivers had a good weekend.

I’ve already discussed Helio’s woes yesterday, but the other three had forgettable weekends. Ryan Hunter-Reay had a careless pit-lane speed violation that set him back, once he acknowledged the drive-through penalty. Then he had the spin in Turn Eleven on Lap 36. If you are in contention for a championship, you can’t have pit-lane speed violations. It’s careless mistakes like that that has kept Will Power within the reach of others. Had Power not had his multiple infractions and subsequent penalties, he would have a very comfortable lead. His carelessness has kept this championship interesting.

Speaking of Power, he had the best day of the contenders with a very unremarkable sixth-place finish. That’s how he was able to make up ground on Helio. Had Castroneves had a solid day, Power would probably be twenty to thirty points back today.

Simon Pagenaud was quiet for most of the day, like his other fellow championship contenders. He dealt with an ill-handling car all day and finished a very unremarkable ninth.

Surely someone will grab this championship by the neck and act like they want it. So far, it hasn’t happened. If things continue as they are, I’m afraid that the ultimate winner will have simply backed into it without actually doing anything to close the deal. By Fontana, the contenders may be driving to not lose the championship instead of trying to win it. That never turns out well.

All in All: As I said Friday, the recent racing at Mid-Ohio has been dull. The track configuration just doesn’t lend itself to a lot of passing. But yesterday’s race seemed to give us more passing than usual and was quite entertaining.

But the clinic that Scott Dixon put on was something to behold. I saw comments made after the race saying that any race that Dixon wins is boring. I disagree. He is just so smooth and tactical, that he makes it look effortless when his car is right. By going from last to first yesterday, I’d say his car was right. His drive was incredible!

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio”

  1. I’d say this race was pretty exciting. Even the finish: Can he last until the end or can’t he? And he did.

    I, too, was pretty surprised to find Dixon in P1 after the final caution period. And just like you, I thought he would have to pit again for fuel one more time, and he didn’t.

    Josef Newgarden clearly had the car to hunt down Dixon and win this race, either by overtaking him out on track or by pushing him into burning more fuel so he would have run out before the finish line. Newgarden’s overtaking moves on Munoz and Bourdais into the keyhole corner in 2 consecutive laps were pretty exciting and watching him close the gap to Dixon so quickly was pretty stunning, too.

    And when Helio had that clutch malfunction ahead of the start and Kanaan was out so soon after the start, I was thinking surely nobody would have anything against Bourdais today. But not only did Newgarden overtake him on merit but Dixon pulled off his awesome run from last on the grid to win.

    And there was some exciting driving from Ryan Hunter-Reay and those side-by-side passes courtesy of Ryan Briscoe through the curved section of the track, too, where normally, you don’t see anybody even trying to overtake.

    Overall, I’d say Mid-Ohio does not need any artificial spicing up of the action at all. It’s fine as it is. The DW-12 probably has something to do with that, though, as it’s much more racy at this place than the old car used to be.

    • I’ll say this: I think a lot of folks chattering online need to redefine – or at least think through – what it is they don’t like about fuel mileage races. Dixon did indeed win on that gamble, but I don’t think anyone else in the field was that deeply in conservation mode. Heck, as George pointed out: SFHR’s strategy was specifically to pressure Dixon into high fuel use; it’s just that it got rendered moot by that bad pit stop. Plus, Bourdais came out and said Dixon was running a good pace despite the savings mode.

      I’m a little hesitant to group this in with other fuel mileage races when the other contenders are running flat out in full rich mode to catch up. To me, that’s not a case of the field holding back, that’s a case of a team outfoxing everyone else. And that’s a good thing, fuel mileage condemnations be damned. It’s just a plain good thing to see a team thinking through and making the most out of a calculated risk.

      Plus, what goes around comes around. I clearly recall a race (last season?) where Dixon was cruising with an easy lead but people were counting his laps since the last stop. He *had* to pit and give up a win because he couldn’t make it last. Sometimes the gambles fail, and sometimes they work, but either way there’s good tension and drama.

      I hope – and in places am happily seeing – people get sharper at discerning the hidden details and nuances of race strategy. Fuel mileage is one of those things. Yes, some don’t get what makes yesterday different, and that distresses me. Worse yet, I’ve seen posts and Tweets complain that fuel mileage races are boring, which makes me wonder if those folks even watched the race. But in places, I’ve seen others say it was brilliant, it was tense, it was dramatic… and all because of how things unfolded. That makes me happy, because it shows that there are fans who do indeed get it.

      There’s a good deal of variety in Indycar that makes things exciting. This is one of them.

      • billytheskink Says:

        I do not know if this is the specific race you are thinking of, but Dixon was leading on alternate fuel strategy late at Long Beach this year. He didn’t get the caution he needed and had to pit with 2 laps to go, finishing 12th.

      • I agree with your post!! Dixon has lost the series championship because he ran out of fuel in turn 4 of the last race. This, was a well deserved win.

  2. I agree with your comments on Paul Tracy. Took me awhile to warm up to him but he has been great in the booth.

    Also was thrilled to finally hear Curt and Kevin mentioned. About time.

  3. Phil Kaiser Says:

    Anyone see the interview with SeaBass and the “Mistic Mafia?” WOW….

  4. billytheskink Says:

    A decent race on the whole, but a great addition to the Indycar mythos. As Long Beach was to Al Unser Jr. and Toronto was to Michael Andretti, Mid-Ohio is to Scott Dixon. The last-to-first drive grows the legend that much more.

  5. Dixon made most of his passes in the pits or by saving fuel, so I’m not sure I’d call it the greatest drive I had ever seen. Hamilton in the last F1 race was more impressive. I back up the statement any win by Dixon is boring, he’s the most boring driver in Indycar, and probably the least likealbe after Saadavra. If you can tell the difference between Dixon, Dario, Jimmie Johnson, or Matt Kenseth then you are doing better than I am. They are basically the same boring driver. Mid Ohio was Mid Ohio, either you enjoy the skill and strategy or you don’t, and I am comfortable saying that I did not particularly enjoy it. With the DW-12 the race wasn’t as bad as it was in the recent past, but it still wasn’t good. The last part of the race basically didn’t need to happen, had it ended after Newgarden got penalized the top ten would have been almost the same. Newgarden had a chance to do something incredible, get his first win, and perhaps even pass for the lead late in the race. But a pit road problem ended that. As I said on twitter, there’s been plenty of parity this year, but it’s just not from the drivers I like…..

    Finally, they start saving fuel so quickly in Indycar, it seems to really hurt the amount of action on the track. Also we were so close to watching Dixon run out of fuel… had Bourdais just gotten a little closer I think he’d have won the second time.

  6. I missed Paul Tracy, too!

  7. Hal Bush Says:

    Ed Carpenter got through to his crew that they are professionals and are expected to win and they are no longer making mistakes. I am sure that there are a lot of people who would like to be on the SFHR crew who would do what it takes to consistantly be the best. You know, if I were only 20……

  8. fuel saving is about as exciting to watch as paint drying.

    but Dixon is one heck of a driver, fuel saving or not.

    beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder didn’t love this race.

  9. George, I have to take exception to your concern about somebody backing into the championship. Anyone who wins a championship does more things right more consistently and frequently than any other competitor. Some championships are determined after brilliant competition, some after less than great seasons. Striving for excellence is always a good way to operate. Being better than any competitor is all it takes to get the championship trophy. It is always earned.

  10. Newgarden makes too many mistakes on the track to criticize his crew. Free agent or not I don’t think there are any rides out there next year, with the possible exception of Foyt. Look for downsizing of teams and smaller fields next year.

    • The Lapper Says:

      I don’t buy that at all. Newgarden is a major up and comer and everyone recognizes that. As for available rides for next year, I’ll do my usual wait and see take. Don’t look for downsizing either. The Lights program looks like it is getting off to a good start and there is already interest from Rahal and Foyt for joining the ranks. I am not saying that there will be new ICS teams, but there won’t be any fewer and, as usual, there will be a full field in the 500.

  11. I attended the race and finally watched the replay on DVR so I feel like I can comment..

    I will start with saying I love Mid-Ohio. The place is an hour from home and it is a beautiful setting. The tickets are cheap and you can bring all the food and booze in you want in any size cooler.

    For the second straight year I had issues with the scanner. I could not find IMS Radio (457.0000?). I do not have any issues at NASCAR races and I did not have an issue at the 500. I cannot explain it. Thankfully, I did manage to find the TV call.

    The race itself was exciting sitting at the Esses (why didn’t the TV crew ever use the corner names?). There was lots of side by side battles which appeared to make it onto the TV feed. Being a Dixon fan of course makes going to Mid-Ohio heaven. He did catch a break with the RHR caution, but how do you save fuel and pull away from the field? The guy was awesome.

    After the race we walked right up to the podium for the third year in a row. I am amazed that this is so easy to do and costs nothing additional. It is one of the best kept secrets in IndyCar. A couple watching next to us said they did the same thing in Toronto. I took a ton of pictures while cheering the trio on. This very well may be the case for any non-oval.

    My complaints? They are IndyCar complaints. I would love a standing start and I would love a double header. I have beaten these points to death in the comments:)

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