Random Thoughts On Long Beach
From a pure marketing standpoint, I’m not sure that the Izod IndyCar Series could have scripted a better result than what they got yesterday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The popular young American driver from a team that has struggled recently and with the series sponsor on the side of his car; drove to a dominating victory at the second most visited venue on the circuit that happens to be located in one of the largest markets in the country.
Not that he really needed to, but Ryan Hunter-Reay certainly validated his presence in the series and showed how worthy he is of a top full-time ride. I certainly hope this will give Izod or another sponsor out there enough of a reason to step up and write a sufficient check to fund the remaining portion of his season with Andretti Autosport to guarantee full-time status for the young American.
It has been a long road for Hunter-Reay since he last won in the Izod IndyCar Series at Watkins Glen in 2008. First and foremost, he had to deal with the lingering illness of his mother, who passed away during the offseason. If that weren’t enough, Rahal-Letterman Racing – the team that he drove for in in 2008, failed to secure sponsorship leading into the 2009 season and suspended operations.
Tony George signed him just before the 2009 season opener for the woefully underfunded second car at Vision Racing. Other than a second place finish in the season opener at St. Petersburg, his stint at Vision was a disaster that steadily grew worse with every race – culminating in a horrible month of May which saw him put the car into the field in a last minute heroic effort. After Indianapolis, Tony George’s sisters essentially took the checkbook away from him and he had to let Hunter-Reay go immediately following the Texas race. From there, he joined AJ Foyt Racing in a substitute role for the ailing Vitor Meira. Things didn’t improve any, although Hunter-Reay did give the Foyt ABC Supply car some decent runs later in the year.
Heading into the offseason, questions were swirling around Hunter-Reay’s future. He had signed on a couple of years ago as a personal spokesperson for Izod, and last fall they were announced as the series sponsor. Surely, their favorite driver would land somewhere.
A reshuffle at Andretti-Green Racing found Michael Andretti as the new sole owner of the team. Three of their four drivers from last year’s sub-par season were coming back, but Hideki Mutoh was moving on. It was widely believed that the newly renamed Andretti Autosport would cut back to a three car effort after running four full-time cars since 2004. But then, Izod stepped up and guaranteed funding for a partial schedule at Andretti Autosport for Hunter-Reay.
After Andretti-Green went winless for the first time in 2009, Hunter-Reay has brought Andretti Autosport its first win under the new structure and their first win since Tony Kanaan won at Richmond in 2008 – a string of 28 races. Now the part-time driver finds himself third in the championship point standings, just 43 points behind points leader Will Power. Still, his future is unsure. No one seems certain what will happen to the American star beyond Texas. Although, Andretti Autosport certainly appears to be on the upswing, I doubt that Michael Andretti can afford to run Hunter-Reay out of his own pocket – and he shouldn’t have to.
If Izod cannot or will not step up with additional funding, surely some American companies would want to capitalize on what is now a proven American commodity. Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi come under a lot of fire for not hiring Americans, but they simply hire who they think give them the best chance to win. Well, here’s a chance for an American company to go with one of the few Americans in the series, who is now a multiple race winner in the series (not to mention his record in Champ Car).
And who’s to say that Hunter-Reay isn’t the reason for the resurgence at Andretti Autosport? I know Tom Anderson’s presence has a lot to do with it, but don’t underestimate Hunter-Reay’s presence as well. For the first time since Dario Franchitti left after winning the championship in 2007; Tony Kanaan has a teammate he can actually relate to and bond with, instead of serving as the team’s official car setup expert and its unofficial baby-sitter.
Whoever does it or however it’s done; Ryan Hunter-Reay deserves a fulltime ride and the series needs him fulltime as well.
TV Coverage: For the second week in a row, Lindy Thackston has served as host of IndyCar Central – the pre-race show for Versus; and has done an admirable job. Lindy is only in her second season covering IndyCars, but she was a quick study and has quickly earned a lot of credibility among fans. She fits in as “one of us”.
Jack Arute introduced his new digs in the PerformX Pit Central, which appeared stuck out of the way at one end of pit road. I can’t say that it was a needed addition and his large TV monitor didn’t show well at all as he kept pointing to a picture of a cutaway car. They need to get a real one like Jack had use of, on the ABC telecasts.
The graphics on the IndyCar Non-Stop weren’t functioning properly during the first two commercial breaks. They finally got it updated correctly to show the lap and top three positions before the second break was over.
Bob Jenkins had a few more minor gaffes than normal, which will get the naysayers going again. To them, I’ll give a pre-emptive “who cares?” – I’d rather listen to Bob Jenkins with a few snafus in his delivery, than a perfect performance by Marty Reid any time.
The Race: The race itself was kind of boring, especially in the first half. It was sort of like watching a scoreless baseball game – you just had a feeling something big was about to happen. I wouldn’t say anything big happened, but when Justin Wilson was clipped by Alex Lloyd; things got more interesting. Wilson’s cause was helped tremendously by the full-course caution brought on by Mario Romancini’s dive-bomber move into Graham Rahal going into turn one.
Of course, the move (or gift) of the race was when Will Power suddenly slowed after turning onto Shoreline Drive. The Versus crew speculated that he hit the pit-lane speed limiter, but Power said it got stuck in first. Whatever the cause, the momentary slowdown was enough to allow Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson to slip by him as he fell from first to third. Passing was tight, so without that I’m not sure Hunter-Reay would have been able to ever get by Power.
The race was typical for Long Beach – a great event wrapped around a so-so race. I don’t know why so many purists were squawking about Barber last summer when the schedule was announced. Long Beach offers very little passing, but the non-oval fans seem to love Long Beach. I understand its significance on the schedule, but I’ll never be convinced that great racing goes on there.
All in all: It was an interesting race, even if it wasn’t breathtaking. There were enough storylines throughout the day to make it interesting and it had a “feel good” ending. I’m an admitted Team Penske fan, but I was pulling for either Hunter-Reay or Wilson to win – either one would have made me happy. I like Will power and won’t have a problem with him winning the championship – but I don’t want to see him run away with it in April. I was also glad to see Andretti Autosport back in the winner’s circle. It’s refreshing to see the Penske-Ganassi stronghold broken. Now, it’s off to Kansas in a couple of weeks and onto the ovals for the first time this season. Stay tuned.