This weekend, the IndyCars travel to a venue that has always been one of my personal favorites, although I realize that not everyone feels the same as I do about that. The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH began hosting open-wheel racing at the track in 1980, with Johnny Rutherford winning the inaugural event. They returned in 1983 and since then, ran at the track continuously until 2003. After a three year hiatus, the IRL started racing at Mid-Ohio in 2007.
It has been criticized for being too narrow and that the faster IndyCars had outgrown the 2.4-mile circuit. Those critiques aside, I have always found open-wheel racing at Mid-Ohio to be some of the most entertaining races on a road course. There are enough elevation changes to make it interesting. The turns are tight with good braking zones. There are also several long sections of fast straightaways. It seems that more times than not, the point standings always endure a major shakeup by the time the weekend is over at Mid-Ohio.
Based on some of the fan comments I’ve read about Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, I guess I’m a little odd. One thing that I expect from a natural terrain road course is a picturesque setting. That’s one thing I liked about Barber, as well as Road America and Watkins Glen. I don’t really pay much attention to any natural beauty around an oval, but I like a scenic road course. That’s why I never cared for Sonoma. I always hear announcers talking about the breathtaking scenery at Sonoma, but it always looks like a dustbowl to me. It’s the same with Laguna Seca, although the corkscrew makes up for any deficiencies in greenery there.
Mid-Ohio doesn’t have the serenity of the rolling hills at Watkins Glen, the lush timber surrounding Road America or the manicured landscaping of Barber. But it has enough openness and elevation changes to make for some interesting racing.
Two generations of Andretti’s have ended up on their head at Mid-Ohio. In 2007, Danica Patrick was slow on the start and caused her teammate Tony Kanaan to check up. When he did, he touched wheels with his other AGR teammate Marco Andretti and sent Marco spinning where the car ended up upside down. The cars were going relatively slow and the incident appeared more comical than anything.
The 1998 race was a different story. Michael Andretti was attempting to pass PJ Jones heading into turn three when they touched. Michael went skidding and flipped over while still on the pavement at approximately 190 mph. He skidded through turn three, upside down, just in front of the braking car of Greg Moore. It was there that he went into the gravel pit and the car started tumbling violently. Eleven years later, it remains one of the most violent crashes I have ever seen a driver walk away from. It’s also one of the few times I’ve seen Michael Andretti completely stunned to the point that he was speechless.
The track has been around since 1962 when it was started as a local sports car track. Then in 1982 the track was bought by the late Jim Trueman, founder of Red Roof Inns and the owner of Truesports, the IndyCar team that won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 with Bobby Rahal as the driver. Trueman put a lot of money into permanent grandstands, permanent garages and a media and hospitality center. After Trueman’s death in 1986, his estate continued to pump money into the facility. In 1990, the track underwent a major facelift. It was widened, repaved and had a new retaining wall added. The track had another major renovation take place in 2006, when the some of the concrete in the apex of the turns was taken up and the entire track was repaved. The track is still owned by Truesports, Inc to this day.
Many famous drivers have added their names to the list of winners at this semi-historic track. Names like Rutherford, Rahal, Mario & Michael Andretti, Fittipaldi, Unser, Zanardi, Castroneves and Tracy all won CART/Champ car races at Mid-Ohio. The two races run under the IRL banner were won by Scott Dixon in 2007 and Ryan Briscoe in 2008.
Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have the pressure of their last names to live up to each week. There is probably additional pressure on Graham Rahal to perform at Mid-Ohio for several reasons. First, he grew up less than a hundred miles from the track. Plus, his father’s past history with Truesports and the Trueman family – and the fact that Bobby Rahal is a two-time winner of this event, only add to the pressure. Now that he has gotten a new teammate in Oriol Servia and he has gotten some decent oval finishes under his belt, I look for Graham Rahal to have an outstanding weekend at Mid-Ohio. That’s not a good thing, however. The few times I have made such a prediction for a driver in this blog, they have had a disastrous weekend. Witness Paul Tracy at Milwaukee.
Ryan Briscoe did what he needed to do last weekend. He won while the two drivers ahead of him had mediocre showings. The result was a shakeup at the top putting Briscoe back in the points lead. Being the defending race winner at Mid-Ohio gives him a chance to put a little distance on the Target guys. Helio Castroneves is pretty much out of it, but he can still win races. Look for AGR to have an unusually good weekend with Tony Kanaan leading the way, for once.
At least we have the street races behind us for the season. As the 2009 season winds down, we have two natural terrain road courses followed by three ovals. Although I will always be an oval guy, but I actually like natural terrain road courses. It’s the street circuits I don’t care for. I’m counting on Mid-Ohio to offer some good racing this weekend.